A Butoh Classic 

By Kaija Pepper
  • Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi in a portrait for their work “Sunyata” / Photo Peter Eastwood 
  • Barbara Bourget in “Sunyata” by Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi / Photo by Yukiko Onley 
  • Carolyn Chan in “Sunyata” by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Jay Hirabayashi in “Sunyata” by Barbara Bourget and Hirabayashi / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Holly Holt in “Sunyata” by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi / Photo by Chris Randle 


Kokoro Dance, Vancouver International Dance Festival

March 21-25, 2006 

Who knew it would last? When Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget of Kokoro Dance launched the Vancouver International Dance Festival in 1998, it was a showcase for international butoh artists. For the first few years, attendance was dismal. Some of the shows were good, some appalling; but looked at in hindsight, audiences were getting a fantastic grounding in the art of butoh. Over time, Hirabayashi and Bourget became more responsive to their audiences and the festival now aims for a mix of dance genres – though always with a good dose of butoh – and has become a well-established part of the dance season. 

This year’s line-up was wide-ranging, from the contact improvisation-based choreography of Peter Bingham to the two dance-and-chat duets by Rita Cioffi of France’s Compagnie Aurélia. Butoh was represented in the extravagant scenarios of “Sei-Rei (The Spirits of Nature)” by Harupin-Ha, a California-based troupe originally from Japan; and by the cool meditation of Toronto’s Denise Fujiwara in her solo, “Komachi”. The most ambitious of the festival’s butoh pieces was the two-and-a-half hour epic for eight dancers by Bourget and Hirabayashi. Their remount of the fifteen-year-old “Sunyata”, titled after a Buddhist Sanskrit word meaning “emptiness”, ponders the states of grace and disgrace that make up the cycle of life.

It’s always a pleasure to watch these two on stage: their maturity and experience gives their performance clarity and depth. In “Sunyata”, Bourget remains separate from the group, often on a platform above the fray, a bald, sharp-nosed elf, naked except for a minimal loincloth, and white-painted. She engages substantially only with Hirabayashi (her partner in life and art). Bourget has a strong presence, whether on the floor with her feet in the air, toes splayed in ungainly freedom, or briefly costumed in a long red tutu, sitting pigeon-toed like a little princess on a throne. 

Hirabayashi has the challenging task of mixing his older self in with the five younger dancers: Carolyn Chan, Chris Hannon, Holly Holt, Jennifer McKinley, Deanna Peters and Matthew Romantini. Because this is butoh and not ballet, his looser interpretation of the steps plays well next to the sharper energy of his younger colleagues. The opening section is particularly strong, and unusually fast moving. While Bourget writhes above them, the group stands in an unmoving line facing upstage, until an insistent jazz beat powers each one into action. Costumed in dark blue and black street clothes, they step through a jazz-inflected modern dance routine, shoulders thrusting their bodies forward. A seemingly endless series of basic jumps, bodies relaxed but legs and feet working hard, leaves them exhausted. There is a deliberately raggedy look to the unison movement: precision is definitely not the point and fatigue is allowed to take its toll.

Throughout, there isn’t a lot of variety in the ensemble’s movement, and they wear identical costumes, changing to loincloths in the second section, and then to long skirts, with chests bare. Yet each remains an individual. With only Bourget’s and Hirabayashi’s heads shaved, the ensemble members’ different hairstyles are enough to make their presence less abstract than that of the two masters. A range of backgrounds discretely informs their movement. For instance, Hannon, a newcomer to Kokoro, was recently with Ballet British Columbia, while Chan and McKinley are experienced interpreters of Kokoro’s butoh aesthetic, particularly its interior motivation. Peters, who graduated from the Grant MacEwan College dance program before earning a BFA at Simon Fraser University, stood out during the more energetic moments, bringing a fine combination of finesse and abandon to the choreography. 

The marvellous set by Terry Podealuk features staircases, platforms and a steaming vat of mud into which the dancers immerse themselves, with a backdrop of intertwined nude bodies by artists Richard Tetrault and Thomas Anfield presiding over the space. Gerald King’s lighting adds to the success of the final section, beginning with blinding, heavenly light as the group enters, changing to a cool blue that caresses their white-dusted flesh, and finally a yellow glow as they slowly exit up the highest staircase.

Robert Rosen’s recorded score, which ranges from heavy organ chords to a lighter, faster jazz sound, was edited from the live recording made during a 1997 remount that allowed the musicians improvisational creativity in the playing of his original composition. This tinkering is typical of incarnations of “Sunyata”, which has “evolved”, as Bourget told me in conversation, over its long history. The first part was born in 1987, becoming “Zero to the Power” in 1989. In 1990, the second part, “Aeon”, was created, and the final third, “Elysian Fields”, was made in 1991. This was when the three parts came together as “Sunyata”, which was first remounted in 1997. The 2006 version is thus the second full remount. 

Moments remembered from the 1997 performance and happily seen again: Bourget, her body naked, white-painted and vulnerable, carrying a white rose across the stage, and slippery, mud-soaked bodies tightly grappling on the ground or being lifted by a partner to scary heights. Also appreciated both times was Hirabayashi’s solo dancing, with its gentle jerks and spasms that enliven his whole body, and seem inspired from a place deep inside.

It was fascinating to visit this work again, almost ten years on. It didn’t have the imaginative grip it did that first time, but it’s hard to say why. The choreography has been reworked; most of the dancers are different; this viewer has changed. In Vancouver, butoh itself has become a familiar genre of dance and nude, white-painted bodies no longer carry the same disruptive value they once did. More variety in the choreography – more steps – would have been appreciated, although there is clearly a point to the choreographers’ use of repetition. The heaven and hell depicted in “Sunyata” was not so real this time around, but the evening was an engrossing and unusual one. I appreciated the opportunity to revisit this classic Kokoro work and, judging from excellent houses over five performances, so did many others. 

By Kaija Pepper

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