By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“This is poopie,” my friend whispered in my ear about halfway through the performance by Tokason, a dance troupe formed by Min Tanaka, the greatest contemporary practitioner of Ankoku Butoh, the avant-garde “Dance of Darkness” established in Japan during the late 1950s.
Friday’s dance was supposedly based on Los Caprichos(trans. The Whims), a series of 80 etchings by Francisco de Goya, created in Spain in 1799 to savagely satirize the decadence of the church, the corruption of the monarchy and the brutality of the peasantry.
“If no one charged you $18 and told you this was art, you’d hate it,” my friend said. The guy next to me kept nodding off. The rest of us were rapt — or puzzled.
I think I got it, but then again, I had an inside track. For 10 days in September 1999, I visited Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm, a working farm in Hakushu, Japan, two and a half hours northwest of Tokyo. It was the last edition of a festival cheerfully known (or just mistranslated) as Art Camp, founded by Tanaka to further the work of Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ohno, the originators of Ankoku Butoh. Over the decade that it existed, more than 500 people took part in Tanaka’s workshops and learned a “way of being” while there. Or just a way of being there. It took some adjustment.
On a typical day you’d witness half-naked people in ashy white body paint dancing in rice paddies, through ponds and up trees. Or you’d kill, bleed and pluck a chicken that had been bitten in the ass by one of the farm’s dogs, and then make soup out of it. Or you’d drink vending- machine sake with an alcoholic Samoan choreographer who’d made a living in the ’80s working as a Japanese television personality, following in the footsteps of many fellow islanders. (Imagine a television culture of Stepin Fetchit and Sambo, only focused on assorted gaijenof considerable size.) Or you’d participate in the finale to the young person’s edition of Art Camp, which involved dozens of preteens trying to light a 25-foot torch by forming a ring around it, dipping rocks in fuel, setting them aflame and slinging them across the circle at one another. It was a place of opposites. Lots of scowls and laughter.
“We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body,” Tatsumi once said of the dance he co-created. “This is the unlimited power of Butoh.”
Friday’s program promised “a dramatic climax on the JACCC Plaza,” and outside all became clear(er). In the hour since we’d entered the theater, bamboo structures hung with unshucked rice had been erected in the courtyard. The ground was covered in broad stripes of blue and white tarp, and a red truck was parked at the corner of it. A spotlight on the truck’s flatbed shone a taut beam of light onto the moon; for a moment, though, it seemed as though that beam was being cast from the moon. The audience milled in confusion, tripped in depressions in the plaza and jockeyed for position. I smelled toothpaste. Was this a tribute to Aquafresh?
We were looking for answers. Tanaka was shaking hands with the dead. He appeared, dressed as an old soldier, and the music of a big band with a Japanese singer echoed in the night. The rest of Tokason emerged, stumbled about and handed out rice.
It made you angry or it made you think: At times like this, the lines between entertainers and artists are clearly drawn. Entertainers are drawn to tributes and charity events. Artists are prone to memorials. And, really my friends, those are not for you.