Monday, March 4, 2013

Adventures in Hedonism: Butoh in the Park

Sometimes I think I living backwards. Now at age 51, I’m doing things I really should have been doing in my twenties. Growing up I was a nerd, an intellectual with all the arrogance inherited in that word. I placed mind above body, looking down on anyone with athletic inclinations. I read books and lived in the mind and imagination.

What I failed to realize at the time was that despite our culture’s love to divide things into either-or dichotomies, true wisdom lies in finding the harmony and balance between forces. So here I am 51, and just now learning to understand and appreciate my body.

I suppose this might be a consequence of the aging process. A corollary of “youth being wasted on the young.” It’s easy to ignore the body in its quiet health of youth. But as aches and pains accumulate suddenly the body calls out for attention. Still, I don’t come to this space with supplicating thoughts of “loosing weight,” or “eating healthy”– rather, my approach has been more a desire to appreciate the body more, in all its forms – and of course, as a hedonist, it’s pleasures.

Last weekend I was given a rare opportunity to attend a Butoh dance workshop, put on by Paradox Pollack for the Alien Fight Club. This was not an ordinary dance workshop, but one taught by a pair of celebrated Butoh Masters, Koichi and Hiroko Tomano. I will let you follow the Wikipedia link to answer the question just what is Butoh anyway, but if you read on you might get a sense of it.

My first experience with Butoh was seeing a performance by Dairakudakan somewhere in the mid to late 80’s. I was mesmerized by the exaggerated movements and expressions, the physicality and performance art of it. Thinking back on that performance I was wondering what I was getting myself into. Mind you, I’ve started working out a bit, but I’m still 51 and many pounds overweight. Of various types of dance I was familiar with, this always came to mind as the most physically demanding. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, but wondered what other regrets I might experience the morning after.

We met at Griffiths Park. Surrounded by twenty-somethings, including professional dancers, I got that sense of backward living – I really should have been doing this 30 years ago. I was probably the oldest person there - except for the Tomanos . A look from Hiroko teasing me for still wearing shoes and any excuse of being “too old for this” quickly melted away.

I love dance. I love watching bodies defy gravity. I love the primal communication of movement and nonverbal expression. Envious as an observer, it was a revelation to now be the object in motion. I don’t know if this is unique to Butoh, or Hiroko, but the workshop was not so much about the movement of the body as the body's position within the construct of time and space. Movement came from the environment, wind lifting the arms, legs taking root, feet balancing on a globe always in motion. The workshop was a meditation, with the body placed at the center of the universe, capturing it, and creating it fresh; the physical becoming metaphysical.

Yes I crawled on the ground jaw thrust forward to balance my alligator tail. Yes I silently roared like a lion and let my tongue be a flame. You would have been amused to watch. But I left the workshop more aware of my body than ever, felt the tether of gravity run through my navel, sensed my location in  space. I was seeing with my third eye, the one that takes all the senses, combines them with imagination and then creates the reality experienced. We are always dancing…

Now before this sounds too much like I’ve given away all my possessions and joined a cult, let me add that the experience was full of playfulness. Even as the lesson was done, Butoh continued into the picnic that followed. Paradox started to thank everyone for coming, and Hiroko interrupted to remind him that he had to do this a ghost – since the lesson ended with us all dissolving into a pool of acid (inspired by the Terminator). For awhile we picnicked as ghosts and then angels, laughing and transcendent.

There is a story that when a reporter came to interview the Tomanos’ about Butoh at their studio, Hiroko told a newly arrived student to “do interview.” The student, who had no idea of what Butoh was, then did the interview. Hiroko told the student afterwards that the interview was Butoh and that was the first lesson. As a lover of pranks of misinformation and the celebration of chaos, I cannot but be charmed by this story. Indeed I was charmed by the Tomanos and am grateful to have had such an experience.

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