Asheville Butoh Festival presents thought-provoking modern dance

SLOW DANCE: New York-based dancer Vangeline performs and leads workshops at the annual Asheville Butoh Festival. Butoh was created by Japanese modern dancers who, in the wake of World War II, were interested in dance that was vulnerable, natural and extreme. Photo by Michael Blase

A woman stands in a ragged white kimono. Her dark hair is vehemently disheveled. Her mouth hangs open in her painted-white face. Music begins over the speakers, and she conducts an invisible symphony — briefly, frantically —  before slowly crumpling to the floor. The collapse is so drawn out and nuanced, you might start to wonder if she’s OK.

This is not your mama’s modern dance. It’s an example of what you’re likely to encounter during the annual Asheville Butoh Festival, held at the BeBe Theatre, Thursday-Monday, Sept. 18-22. In this case, the woman is renowned New York-based butoh dancer Vangeline of the Vangeline Dance Company. She comes to town thanks to local festival organizer Julie Becton Gillum.

A co-founder of the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre 35 years ago, Gillum has worked closely with ACDT and BeBe Theatre’s head couple, Susan and Giles Collard, ever since. Long a champion of modern dance in Asheville, Susan says that butoh makes her feel introspective and vulnerable. Her husband, Giles, adds that “Butoh makes me feel closer to nature.”

Despite the dance form’s dark themes, these are not infrequent observations — butoh was created by Japanese modern dancers who, in the wake of World War II, were interested in dance that was vulnerable, natural and extreme to a point where there was no logical reaction besides introspection.

A modern dancer by training, Gillum came to butoh after seeing a performance in New York in 1997. Before that, as she made her way through the world of professional dance, she says her work faced criticism.

“People said that my work was ugly and that when I danced it was scary,” she laughs. “When I saw butoh, I said, ‘Oh! Scary and ugly — that’s where I belong. I love it. It’s perfect.’ So, I started studying and training, and going everywhere I could to work with butoh artists.”

Gillum has been to Japan and Mexico, across Europe and the U.S., exploring the possibilities inherent in embracing butoh. Given Asheville’s bohemian arts culture and penchant for modern dance — and the Collard’s interest in exploring all avenues of it — it seemed only a matter of time before butoh took hold at ACDT and in the local dance scene.

For one performance at the 2010 Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, Gillum dressed in full butoh gear — white face and kimono — but with very high, wedged cork heels. In another dance, her face entered the spotlight, tired and confused, before she removed the top half of her costume, turned her back to the audience, and flopped her long, tangled ponytail back and forth. She rippled her torso like an ocean wave, then manipulated her entire body into one thin center line. Balance.

“In butoh, time is altered,” Gillum says. “It’s very abstract. It comes from a relationship with the German expressionists, from surrealism and dada. It was founded on European modern dance principles.”

Indeed, where many Western dance styles call for students to learn the steps and positions which compose much of traditional choreography — even modern dance has its collection of standard movements — butoh, often called the “dance of death,” is aimed at approximating the liberation of ultimate mortality. Gillum says that “training involves as much experience with the body as you can develop. … It’s mostly about the vulnerability of the artist, which is when you’re at your most creative. It is extremely physical and extreme in whatever it is. It may be extreme stillness, or extreme frantic movement, extreme tension. People don’t usually say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s just your usual butoh performance.’ They either love it or hate it.”

But, as festivalgoers will discover, butoh isn’t always about daring mortality or exploring the darkness. As Gillum says, “It can be very funny. I had an artist who saw my work at a butoh festival in [Colorado]. He said, ‘I like your work. It’s stupid. Butoh needs stupid.’” Gillum says appreciates the hidden compliment in this potentially offensive language, noting that the insight one gains from embracing offensiveness is part of what butoh is about.

Regardless, whether stupid, ugly or scary, Gillum says, “We’re just going to keep doing it — bringing interesting, provocative performers and teachers to Asheville.”

WHAT: Asheville Butoh Festival, ashevillebutoh.com
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 18-Monday, Sept. 22. Shows Thursday-Saturday, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, at 7 p.m. $17 advance, $20 at the door, $12 seniors. $10 students. Workshops Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and Monday, 6-9 p.m. $30 each

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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