Butoh Dance Comes to Bennington

The Japanese art form generates moods from the lyrical to the macabre

IT was an unusual afternoon even for Bennington College, known for its thrusts into the experimental. Min Tanaka, a master of the Japanese avant-garde dance form butoh, was about to guide a throng of Bennington's staff, faculty, students, and visitors through a two-hour culmination of "Night-Day," a series of dance sketches developed during Mr. Tanaka's six-week residency at this southern Vermont school.

The dancers were all Bennington students, and most of the choreography and staging came from them rather than the dance master, who was more a source of inspiration than of direction. The dance, sculpture, and music departments had collaborated in the production, in line with Bennington's commitment to breaking down academic boundaries.

"Night" had happened the evening before, with dancers often illuminated by torchlight. The sunny, daylight rendition would lack that bit of drama, but would have no shortage of visual and audible impact.

Tanaka appeared wearing a long black robe and pushing a cart filled with red roses (which, as the afternoon progressed, he would occasionally toss to dancers or hand to spectators). He walked, wordless through the crowd of 150 or so, and they followed. A few hundred yards down a shaded dirt road, the first venue was reached - a garden enclosed by a high, weathered brick wall, a remnant from college's days as an estate.

The dance master lit a pile of brush and sticks in an open, grassy part of the garden. With this, two dancers covered primarily by white body paint - one wearing a grotesque, outsized mask that seemed a representation of the sun - slowly came alive. Before they had seemed almost like statuary.

When the male dancer removed his mask, the female reacted with terror. This confrontation was repeated until both donned masks, which created a kind of harmony between them, with their dance motions in unison rather than in opposition.

Some message about reluctance to confront our true natures? Perhaps, though Bonnie Sue Stein, whose New York-based company, Doh Productions, represents Mr. Tanaka in the United States, cautioned that butoh is typically non-narrative, without any story line or theme. "It can be totally disjointed," she said, adding that different butoh masters can have quite different styles.

Taking a moment to chat as the spectators moved on to another performance, Ms. Stein further explained that this kind of dance developed in postwar Japan in tandem with strong antiwar feelings and reactions against the militaristic past. It appears to partake of some established Japanese traditions: The white body paint, for example, is reminiscent of Kabuki. But Stein suggested that the often slow, deliberate movements of butoh are more related to "No," another traditional form of dance and theater.

The originators of butoh had training in modern Western dance, Stein continued. Some had studied flamenco. The name butoh, itself, is an old Japanese term for "dance step." It might have been meant as a poke at tradition, said Stein, since in the late 19th century the term was applied to the Western ballroom dancing then being exported to Japan.

The moods cast by the performers at Bennington swerved from soothing and lyrical - as when three dancers did identical steps around three trees that receded in a line from the spectators' view - to macabre. The latter climaxed in an indoor performance that turned a darkened lecture hall into the interior of a spider's web - or perhaps a torture chamber from the Inquisition. Weird, wailing music filled the room. Weblike strands were projected on walls; some dancers strained against fetters; another labore d to turn a windlass; one figure struggled to break free of what appeared to be a huge hanging cocoon.

That nightmarish scene was balanced by the outdoor pieces, where the interplay with nature was intriguing and sometimes amusing: the dancer's hand emerging from a stack of cut twigs and releasing clouds of puffy white seed pods, the well-timed puff of wind that unfurled a long white streamer at a climactic point in a dance, the incorporation of any sound - a bird song, a baby's cry, the clicking of bicycle wheels - into the the free-form musical accompaniment.

"Min always responds to the environment," Stein observed, mentioning that she once saw him use the noise of a passing motorcycle in his dance.

Tanaka didn't join in the dancing at Bennington until the last of the 12 works in "Night-Day." This took place in the cavernous, scantily lit Martha Hill Dance Workshop. To a background of metal drums, whistles, and electric guitar chords (sometimes produced by striking the strings with a drumstick), he feinted and swayed, creating a collage of small movements of head, arms, and fingers.

THE rest of the cast soon joined him from all sides, and even suspended overhead. The music and sound built until audience members might have imagined themselves trapped in a gigantic, rollicking bird cage - mysteriously, a few eggs even dropped from above (missing the spectators).

When the performance was over, Tanaka broke into a broad smile. Asked about the students' work, he proclaimed, "They did well, because they enjoy."

In Europe, butoh has gained popularity in France, Germany, and even in Russia. It is performed regularly by companies in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. US public awareness of butoh probably reached a peak in 1985, when a member of the Japan-based butoh dance company Sankai Juku fell to his death during a performance of the troupe's famous "hanging dance."

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