As I was sitting on the wall outside the N.C. Stage Company’s theater watching something called “Procession of Bones” before a performance of “Yūgen,” an evening of Butoh dance, an older gentleman whispered to me, “This is the wackiest thing I’ve ever seen!” Indeed, a solemn parade of kimono-clad individuals accompanied by musicians shaking bells, banging gongs and blowing a conch-shell as they made from the Rankin Street parking deck was a rare sight, even in Asheville.
Later, mid-way through the first piece, I couldn’t help but wonder how my gentleman whisperer was faring as dancer-choreographer Julie Becton Gillum, one of the evening’s artistic instigators, stood spot lit and gyrating center stage, her bare-breasted torso painted a stark white. The piece, called “Woodfield,” begins as Gillum teeters, accompanied by the click of crickets, across stage in an acid yellow kimono and platform wedges. From here, Gillum, releases herself from her kimono as if emerging from a cocoon. She appears tortured and grimaces as she finds her newly hatched self in this liminal space.
If you are new to this Japanese dance form, a nearly naked performer, leaping like a mechanical preying mantis, captures something of the absurdity and unanticipated beauty of Butoh. Defying precise definition, Butoh developed in reaction the rapidly changing socio-political and ideological atmosphere of post-WWII Japan. Butoh dancers paint themselves white, as if their bodies are blank canvases. They also use their bodies in movements that are both grotesque and elegant to tackle taboo topics.
Gillum, a longtime presence in the local theatrical and dance community, founded Asheville’s lively Butoh scene over a decade ago. For “Yūgen,” Sara Baird, a recent Asheville addition who co-founded Anemone Dance Theater in New York in 2001 and continues as its artistic director, joins her. Baird and Gillum (she started her company, Legacy Butoh, in 2005) are attracting a following of Butoh fans, both dancers and viewers. They’re planting a prominent Asheville flag on the close-knit American Butoh map.
Baird offers some relief form the show’s gritty solo performances with “Lacuna,” which she performs with Jenni Cockrell, John Crutchfield and Julia Taylor. The group emerges from swathes of plastic sheeting, like newborns from placenta and sway and stumble into the soundscape of an invisible tea party. Manic cackling startles these babes into a cluster where they each discover paranoia in the bottom of their teacups
The title of Gillum’s “Goddess of the Privy” seems whimsical, but as performed by Cockrell, this story of a 17th century Chinese wife murdered by a rival and thrown into a privy pit, is intensely visceral. Bathed in red light, bound in black taffeta and wearing a white Japanese mask, Cockrell clambers, writhes and drags herself towards a toilet bowl. Hunched over it, she pulls a trip of red material like a long entrail from her mouth. A dancer putting her head in toilet bowl or pulling out her insides may sound revolting, but Cockrell performs this gripping piece with utmost grace.
If you were squirming in your seat with “Privy,” Baird’s “Monsoon,” performed by Gillum, Crutchfield and Taylor, will quell the urge. Video images of liquids, created by Baird, spill across the floor onto white cloth-covered parasols that conceal chalky bodies, creating a viscous layering of body, image and sound. Projections of bubbles play across these tents of cheesecloth as the rush of wind and rain prompts the dancers to close their parasols and duck to the ground. The chirp of birds suggests regeneration as the tented parasols rise and open, and each sheltered individual waves to us. Lyrical movements from Gillum, Crutchfield and Taylor counterpoint the depths of suffering in the solo pieces.
“Yūgen’s” closing piece, “Bitter Rice,” shows off the ingenuity of Baird and Gillum’s artistic collaboration. Both were choreographers but Baird is the solo performer here. Baird has a commanding stage presence and her performance in conjunction with music by Chandra Shukla coalesces to create a riveting end to the show. Kimono-clad, she emerges from a low-drifting fog, to stagger and slide on plasterer’s stilts toward a high table piled with glowing rice. In a fit of mania she claws and grasps at this bitter rice and then ceremonially removes cumbersome kimono, hat, wig and boots until she is emancipated.
In their program notes, Baird and Gillum tell us that “Yūgen” in Japanese aesthetics means “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe … and the sad beauty of human suffering.” Throughout the program, they thread images of moving from restraint to freedom: clothes come off, parasols lift and plastic wraps are sloughed. The highly nuanced aesthetic from which the evening takes its name requires that these metamorphoses be subtle and they are. Live music performed by Elisa Faires, Chandra Shukla and Kimathi Moore, recorded music by Shawn Oldham and Celeste Hastings, and sensitive lighting by Brian Sneeden propel us into a dislocated universe where fits of rage share space with exultation and the delicacy of growth exists alongside decay. It’s a universe where we can relish imagery and suggestion without pinpointing a definitive story. This is dance as poetry and metaphor. Like poetry, it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
The performers and musicians of “Yūgen” have created an experience where for an evening you can lose yourself in the beauty and suffering of existence. Although you may see many wacky things in Asheville this weekend, I can’t imagine any will leave you deliberating the varieties of human experience quite so much.
Rachael Inch is a recent art history graduate of UNC Asheville.