Pretty Girls Devour Akira Kasai

Photo ©Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The white screen lifts to reveal a big white bathtub on wheels. Three-quarters of the way through Butoh America, created by Akira Kasai and performed at Japan Society, five women move to surround this tub. They seem to gather, like the witches in Macbeth, around a cauldron. They dig into the tub and remove a white bundle of material. As they unroll the material, we finally see Akira Kasai. I feel like cheering. His thin, nearly naked, aging body is painted white. He begins to dance.

In the silence, he moves like an infant. Delicate folds of skin fall over his small briefs. He is breathtaking, filled with intention and nuance. Otherworldly choral music enters the space. He continues to explore new areas. He looks like a geisha, a cat, a rave-dancer. Techno sounds float in and out, disrupting the spell.

These moments exist in stark contrast with the rest of Butoh America. While Kasai's performing resonates with my archetypal image of butoh, most of the evening does not.

Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director of Japan Society’s Performing Arts Program, looks at this possible contradiction. (Listen to interview conducted by Eva Yaa Asantewaa) In program notes she writes that, in Japanese dictionaries, the word butoh has been defined as “Western-oriented dance.” Paradoxically, in the U.S., butoh has often meant a specific Japanese-style modern dance involving white-painted, naked dancers moving slowly. Shioya explains, “In fact, much of the contemporary butoh choreography, or butoh-influenced choreography requires dancers to straighten their knees, execute quick turns and jump around in elaborate costumes." She asks, "Then what is butoh? If it can still be considered a unique form of dance, then what makes it unique? Or is butoh now returning to its original Japanese definition of Western-oriented dance?”

Kasai plays with, and doesn't answer, these questions. The five American-based (and butoh-trained) women in Butoh America use elements that I have come to think of as butoh: strong focus, use of breath, and hints of the grotesque. They also perform lots of high leg kicks and things that look like arabesques and barrel turns. They change costumes (mostly made of sexy, girly American Apparel clothes) often. They look like cheerleaders, ballet dancers, original modern dancers, figures on ancient Greek vases, Puck-like characters. Kasai notes in the program that he hopes to "introduce new butoh and dance to New York that could not have been created in Japan and Europe.” Is this what he does? Sometimes it feels like he's invoking Martha Graham or a jazz-dance competition instead.

I'm confused about Kasai's intentions and those of the performers. Kasai seems to make a distinction between the new generation of Western performers and himself. I find myself disappointed that the women seem like caricatures. Their flirtatious clothes and movements sometimes seem not quite embodied. Is this a statement? Is this the dance that can only be made in New York? Is Kasai poking fun at American sensibilities? Or is the performance of this piece not yet fully realized?

Towards the end of Akira Kasai’s brief appearance, four women bring him back towards the tub. For a moment they look like golden figures from a renaissance painting. Then they begin to eat him, devour him, as they stuff him back into the tub. His hand tries to escape one last time. The women stuff it down while they lick their lips.

1 comment:

  1. i like to see dance especially the dance of cute girls. i usually see dance on tv while doing my job of Web Development Services Islamabad and enjoy dance with work.