Review of Yugen

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.



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6 thoughts on “Review of Yugen


    I saw this performance, and the reviewer is spot on. One of the most eloquent (and unpretentious!) reviews I’ve read on here!


    Now where am I going to go to be pithy?

    That piece of adolescent internet behavior aside, I hope it’s not the case. I would miss this forum as I’ve missed all of the forums we’ve had in this little town. I speak of the forums that for various reasons of infighting and feeling unloved have closed their doors to the one thing our artistic community needs most (that’s discussion, by the way, and the ever necessary debate).

    If there is a new forum that pops up I feel it’s important to give some advice.

    No blog should ever be surprised by Trolls. I do feel our cultural background leaves us to be a little blindsided by this common occurrence of the internet. Someone comes out anonymously and looses a sea of detritus upon some aspect of a show or review and we actually reply with “Why I NEVER!” when we should remember that that’s par for the course with blogs. At this moment someone is threatening to kill an Amazon reviewer’s entire family for smiling favorably upon the widescreen dvd format of Holes. Really the only way we can avoid this is if we meet in an actual room with giant black hooded robes and pass memos around…and I’ve never been part of a secret society so…anybody down?

    Also, I’d just like to say the most fun I’ve had on these forums is when we actually stop discussing the specific shows. The shows are good to create those jumping off points (That production of Hedda Gabler used Smellovision, let’s discuss the merits of Smellovision!) but I do wish we could find a place to talk an equal part theory as well. This may already have existed, like last week when I walked around wishing there was a beverage that tasted like some random popular cola, but was clear. How sad I was to realize I had missed the boat.

    Either way, major frownypoo if this post is truth. Catch everyone on the next fad (I hear it’s pop rocks, but don’t tell anyone). Until then, let’s enjoy the stagnant soup of zero feedback we so desire! Hooah!

  3. John Crutchfield

    Sharkbear, old friend and occasional nemesis: thanks for the humane, generous and (dare I say it?) democratic spirit in which you frame your remarks. The sad news is that it’s true–or partly true: we’ve decided, after 2+ years of Sightlines, to take a breather, clean the palate, step away from the machine, etc. etc. In other words, we’re taking a little time to consider some of the lessons we’ve learned, and to implement a few changes–including some changes in personnel. We’ll be back before too long, though. (Rebecca Sulock and I are aiming to have new reviews going up again by late August.) No amount of trollery can shake our belief in the importance of the Sightlines project for fostering a real “theatre culture” in Asheville. Therefore I say unto ye: do not despair!
    And thanks for the suggestion about “theory.” If anyone has any other suggestions, or if you’d like to try your own brain at a little reviewing, feel free to contact me or Rebecca.

  4. Jan Powell

    Hey, guys and gals, so sorry to see you go if only for a little while. I may not agree with everything that was said but will miss that other voice regarding theatre. We definitely need at least two critical voices in this town. Sharkbear, I will miss your pith; and John, thanks for your post also.

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