Butoh is esoteric. Julie Becton Gillum, artistic director for the Asheville Butoh Festival, now in its 11th year, describes the avant-garde Japanese art as a response to post-World War II westernization. But when prodded for a more concrete description, she hesitates. “We have a standard for everything except butoh,” she says.
Gillum composed Me, The Worst of Them All, as part of the four-day festival running Thursday-Sunday, April 20-23 at The BeBe Theatre. Her performance honors 17th-century Mexican nun and feminist Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz , and uses birdlike imagery to typify life in a male-dominated world. Machismo, or masculine pride, becomes the iron bars and Sor Juana the caged bird.
“She could hold her own against anyone,” says Gillum. “Priests asked her to contain some behaviors that weren’t becoming of a nun. So, she eventually took a vow of silence and didn’t speak or write for five years.”
Butoh expresses words left unsaid. Since its inception in 1959, the genre has been a vehicle for social and political commentaries sparked by the American occupation of Japan. Asheville-based performer and A-B Tech professor Constance Humphries even supposes that butoh is a “postmodernist deconstruction of what the hell it felt like to get bombed” at Hiroshima in August 1945.
Though it’s never been confirmed that butoh rose from the city’s ashes — Gillum mentions that a journalist first made that connection — the art form’s founders, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, certainly meant to dissect Asian culture. Performers don traditional kimonos and white face paint, but robes might be ragged and lipstick smeared. The “broken image” challenges ideas predating the Heian era (794-1185). It’s like a burlesque show that airs Japan’s dirty, centuries-old laundry, says Gillum.
For that reason, domestic theaters are more receptive than those overseas. According to Sara Baird, artistic director of Anemone Dance Theater, Asheville is on the cusp of embracing butoh. “The experimental arts are becoming more available and accessible,” says Baird. “But they do require an adventurous audience.”
In other words, butoh takes some getting used to. It’s heavy and dense. There’s a lot to chew on. For example, in Me, The Worst of Them All, Gillum stands on a 10-inch thick, 100-year-old family Bible — a sister in her habit committing sacrilege in plain sight. But there’s deeper meaning: Maybe Sor Juana is overcoming sexist ideals or Gillum is diverging from Christian conservatism in Western North Carolina.
Baird also unpacks contemporary issues in Chthonic Gardens. As performed by Baird, Gillum, Humphries and local artist Jenni Cockrell, it explores the intersection of humanity and technology by pairing ice caves, monsoons, acid rain and evolution with Japanese folklore. The stage is transformed into “surrealistic subterranean territory,” says Baird, and a multimedia video is projected onto both screen and dancers.
But it’s almost misleading to call the four women dancers. Humphries considers it a “formless form” that’s not about emoting. Butoh is more internal investigation than it is choreography, and that meditation gives rise to controlled, primal motions. “Slow movements stop time with the body,” says Gillum. “Time neither passes nor goes backward.”
Sadly, butoh can’t keep modern politics from moving backward. Though Gillum can’t speak for international guest artists Ken Mai and Paul Michael Henry, she does say that all of the festival’s local performances have a patriarchy-smashing undertone, even if unintentional. Humphries’ debut, Carriage, for instance, looks at the physical and psychological weight women carry through life. “When events occur, personal or global, we must decide whether or not to pick up the burden,” she says. In the exposition, her performers hoist cloth bags made from twisted fabrics onto their backs. When given a choice, they accept the yoke.
Cockrell’s solo imbues similar sentiments. It investigates Ophelia, Shakespeare’s ill-fated Danish maiden, who becomes a sounding board for Hamlet’s misogyny. In the play, 14th-century Elsinore’s societal expectations prove too much, and she drowns herself at the willow tree. Though misconceived as petty or one-dimensional by Brit-lit pundits, Cockrell sees nuance in Ophelia. She says chauvinism caused her madness.
“I was drawn to her politically,” she says. “Ophelia is a woman who fights to stand for her rights.”
Ophelia’s final monologue comes alive at the Asheville Butoh Festival. In Act IV, the now-delusional damsel gives a flower to friends and foe. There’s rosemary for Hamlet, pansies for Laertes, fennel and columbines for Claudius and rue for the Queen. Cockrell has invented a dance for each flower. Since there are no standards in butoh, the final product is neither good nor bad. Though Cockrell does say that applause-worthy performances reveal truths about the human condition.
“Even if they’re passionate about hating it, I don’t care,” says Cockrell. “The audience needs to feel something.”
WHAT: Asheville Butoh Festival
WHERE: BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St., ashevillebutoh.com
WHEN: Thursday, April 20, to Sunday, April 23. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. $18 general admission/$19 seniors and students