Butoh and Beyond

By Kaija Pepper
  • Jocelyne Montpetit / Photo by Shin Koseki
  • Salome Diaz / Photo by Tonya Ng
  • Black Grace / Photo by Duncan Cole
  • Margie Gillis / Photo by Michael Slobodian

Vancouver International Dance Festival

March 2 - 23, 2013

The roots of the thirteen-year-old Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF), produced by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi of Kokoro Dance, are in butoh. The post-World War II aesthetic, founded in Japan, is always present at VIDF through touring groups or in the festival offerings from Bourget and Hirabayashi themselves. This year, two evenings of butoh – one from Montreal, one from Vancouver – provided great examples of the strong inner states for which the form is known. But there were also other kinds of dancers successfully sharing interior intensity in their own particular way.

The show from Montreal was a solo by Jocelyne Montpetit, who moved through slow butoh time with elegiac formality, performing on the festival’s main stage at the Roundhouse. Montpetit’s La Danseuse Malade incorporates text by butoh co-founder Tatsumi Hijikata, presented in French in a recorded voice-over. An English translation is in the program, but it wasn’t necessary to read this beforehand. Montpetit embodied her story fully through profound and precise presence, well supported with movement, with lighting by Marc Parent and with costumes, a series of elegant dresses, by Rocco Barocco, Issey Miyake and Betsey Johnson.

The evocative title carries clues on how to read the piece; Montpetit, a master builder of meaning, makes everything count. La Danseuse Malade begins with a woman of a certain age (Montpetit is sixty) lying naked on a table. She slowly rises, and over the next hour, in her wonderful dresses, dances scenarios filled with high dramatic presence. It’s as if her danseuse is remembering a time when she was a vital force at the centre of things, though the movements are simple: she sways and weaves a little, or reaches her arms upwards. The piece builds surely to an emotional conclusion.

Jennifer McKinley and Salomé Diaz, known for their work as dancers with Kokoro, also provided memorable, though much shorter, butoh-based solos. Their half-hour mixed bill was the first of the 7pm free shows on a temporary stage in the Roundhouse’s exhibition area. In Antennae, choreographed by Bourget, McKinley was a spider inching her way forward with long, articulated legs, or a lizard poised to strike. Yet, in her shiny black leggings and red top, McKinley was always fully herself, too, reaching deep inside to bring substance to the creaturely states. Diaz also plumbed inner depths as she danced in her own work, Camino al Tepeyac (Road to Tepeyac). The Mexican-born performer packs a whole story of religious and pagan intensity into fifteen minutes. Besides the vocabulary of bent and curved, very womanly shapes, Diaz used candles, a golden dress, red petals, scatterings of Spanish that she mutters on stage and, at the end, mud, to create the magical, mystical world her woman inhabits.

The festival has been trying to expand its programming with larger shows downtown, usually at the Playhouse Theatre, though audiences seem reluctant to follow (perhaps because ticket prices are higher?). It’s too bad, because this year’s Playhouse shows were both strong, beginning with New Zealand’s Black Grace (a highlight of the 2010 VIDF). Artistic director Neil Ieremia’s Vaka (2012) was the major work on Black Grace’s mixed bill, inspired by a historically inaccurate painting from 1898 showing the arrival by canoe, or vaka, of Maori in New Zealand. However, Ieremia describes the work as evolving during rehearsal to the point where he realized: “we are our own … canoe … carrying our values and belief systems, experiences and memories .…” With this metaphor in mind, Ieremia has created an hour-long ensemble work with the forthright attack and wide stance that evokes Pacific Island traditional dance, while also filling it with inventive lifts and intricate leaps that look very contemporary. The Black Grace dancers’ fierce waves of movement are magnificent, with arms that jab and curve in unison port de bras, or leaps that twist and turn the bodies like they’re in the embrace of a cyclone. There is, though, a slight difference in motivation: the company’s seven muscular men seem to move from a more instinctual inspiration than the four slender women, who are more formal in their attention to line. Ieremia adds interdisciplinary pizazz to Vaka when he projects scenes of nature on a cream cloth stretched across the stage, while a dancer lies curled up in the corner. Less successfully, he projects film on the bare backs of three dancers: it looks good, but the content – images such as a peace symbol and excerpts from a speech about nuclear weapons being morally indefensible – has no obvious reason for being included.

The other Playhouse show was Margie Gillis’ premiere of The Light Between. She was joined on stage by dancers Marc Daigle and Paola Styron, who, along with Holly Bright, are credited as co-creators of this highly symbolic modern dance piece. As well, the set by Winnipeg visual artist Randal Newman is a palpable presence. His installation of hanging fabric panels decorated with long thin arms and hands subtly changes over the hour under Pierre Lavoie’s lighting: at one point, a few words – “Breathe” was one – became visible. Gillis and Styron slip in and out of white or black satin dresses – generously cut, with lots of fabric to play with, revealing bare backs. Daigle holds long prop arms that he flutters like wings. Gillis has a sighing, gasping solo of gentle spirals and half-skips, the kind of emotional outpouring she does so enticingly. The dramatically dense world of The Light Between is familiar territory for the highly acclaimed soloist, but the maturity of all three dancers (Gillis is fifty-nine) brings a different texture.

Black Grace from New Zealand, Gillis and Montpetit from Montreal, and McKinley and Diaz from Vancouver are good representatives of the international, national and local mix the VIDF aims for. Other local pieces were mostly remounts, including Bourget’s striking full-length solo, A Simple Way. Set to live piano by son Joseph Hirabayashi, it closed the festival. The only remounted work I caught again was Luu Hlotitxw: Spirit Transforming by the Dancers of Damelahamid, which I’d seen in development. With the finished work, the company’s director, Margaret Grenier, has choreographed a traditionally based celebration of her Gitxsan ancestors from northwest British Columbia. The focus of the thirty-minute dance, seen on the Free Stage, drooped a little in the middle section, though composer Andrew Grenier (Margaret’s husband) provided richly textured musical accompaniment with drum and voice throughout. But the opening and closing were marvelous.

The piece begins with gentle chanting and soft steps in moccasins by the ensemble, including Margaret Grenier. The ending is lively, with small duck feathers floating in the currents created when Nigel Grenier (Margaret’s teenage son) jumps centre stage with a crown of sticks on his head, a rattle in each hand, fringed cape flying. Margaret Grenier is a dancer I’m always happy to watch for the way she invests her movement with full spirit, but quietly, without a lot of fuss. Butoh foregrounds this inner depth, but all the artists in the works I’ve singled out at this year’s VIDF know a thing or two about how to access authentic individual expression.

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