When Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo presented a performance at a Japanese dance festival in 1959 in which a young man copulated with a chicken and, debatably, suffocated it between his legs, they sparked a revolution in dance theatre. Butoh, born in an environment infused by the horror of bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and resistance against the East’s relentless imitation of the West, was to evolve into a rigorous deconstruction of the body’s cultural conditioning, breaking it down to the most archetypal and essential of Japanese gestures.
What does it mean when it crosses borders then? Butoh has lent to memorable productions of Yeats’s plays in the Abbey Theatre in the 1990s, evoking mythic beings on the periphery of Irish life, and more recently in street performances of Beckett’s work with effective use of its deathly and decaying movements. Both examples see the dance form being used to generate quintessentially Irish bodies.
Yet, the body is a receptacle for more than just a national identity, as welcomed by Ambra G. Bergamasco’s Moving Bodies Butoh and Live Art Festival, which opens with an electric double-bill. The fresh concrete interiors of the MART, a former fire station, become assaulted by psychedelic projections by glitch artist Antonio Roberts. The fearsome figure of dancer Rachel Sweeney slinks slowly into view, dressed in white leather, a blonde wig and rockstar sunglasses. She jerks and twists to the pulsing music, like a dead body that’s desperately keeping upright. At one point she invades the audience’s space, spitting out pennies and placing them in our hands.
Visceral and mesmerising, this very punk performance seems to reverberate with reference to the form’s origins. From the backdrop of Roberts’s vintage arcade game-style visuals, Sweeney could very well have spun from the riotous conditions in which Hijikata and Ohno staged their controversial dance. Dancing against the projected outlines of ghostly figures, the performer feels very much in connection with a line of revolutionaries.
As opposed to ballet, which provides an ethereal escape, butoh projects the dancer towards desolation. Antje O’Toole’s turn is more the former. She prefers more elegant gestures, and sweeter music, carrying a basket on her back filled with endless rolls of wool that she patiently distributes. Her command of the material creates curious images as it attaches to her body like a umbilical cord, or wraps around her head, leaving her resembling a furry Eskimo. Unfortunately, the performer is just as unsure of its transformations as we are.
These performances signal a rich and diverse line-up over the coming days. Bergamasco’s festival is a hidden gem, summoning the hidden realities of the body surrounded by the tricky symbols of our culture.
Receptacle is playing as part of the Moving Bodies Butoh and Live Art Festival at the MART Gallery until 30 May. For more information and tickets, see the Moving Bodies Butoh Festival website.