Register Sunday | September 23 | 2018

Dead Men Walking

Canadian & Japanese dancers explore the tensions of modern life

These days, disconnecting the cable TV, turning off the cell phone and resisting the urge to surf the Net yet again seem like impossible acts of bravery. Today, we are wired in and hooked up to everything—everything, it seems, except the people in our lives. Solitude and alienation are as common as breakfast cereal.

Three uncommon choreographers—Paul-André Fortier, Yumiko Yoshioka and Kim Itoh—explore this facet of contemporary life. Fortier is a legend of the Montreal dance scene; Yoshioka is a female pioneer of butoh, a Japanese avant-garde form; and Itoh, often called the “bad boy of butoh,” displays a pop sensibility. Their works aren’t conventionally beautiful—solitude and emotional disconnection today don’t lend themselves to lovely movement. No, what emerges from these nights of the living dead is a discomforting grace.

Paul-André Fortier’s “Tensions,” performed in the sizable yet wonderfully intimate Centre Pierre Péladeau, begins with two men sitting on the floor: the white-headed, balding Fortier and a younger man (Robert Meilleur). Something like a slide projector, emptied of slides and clicking randomly, sets the opening tone. The two imitate the staccato light and sound by alternately tilting their heads and slicing the air robotically with their arms. This is a world severed from anything natural. Nature, in fact, is reduced to a short-lived projection of a verdant landscape on a small screen. Next to it, an enormous screen fills with TV static and moving lines. The “music” is a loud, relentless, nervous beat.

It’s all quite cold and alienating. Through sixty minutes, the two men on stage have almost no engagement. Their only sign of awareness of one another is  occasional parallel movement. When they actually come close enough to touch, they look past each other indifferently. Just a slight turn of the head would put them face-to-face, but instead they only mimic embrace in rigid, stabbing motions. Only at the very end is there any physical contact, when the young man manipulates the elder with his feet. (No healing hands here.) Youth seems to have energy, but no passion; old age seems confined to dealing with the heebie-jeebies of an anxious mind and failing body.

Fortier, fifty-five, is superb. Through rhythmic, obsessive scratching and rubbing, he gives the most effective portrayal of bodily discomfort I have ever seen—frankly, it made me antsy just watching. At one point, Fortier even delivers multiple karate-chops to his own guts, neck and head, as if his arms had a rebellious and punishing purpose of their own.

Uncontrollable impulses and self-alienation are explored further by Yumiko Yoshioka and Kim Itoh (pictured), both trained in the Japanese modern dance movement called butoh. Deriving its name from “ankoku butoh”—literally, darkness dance—the postwar form emerged in response to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fast-evolving nature of contemporary Japanese life. Its original practitioners drew inspiration from Buddhism, mime, traditional Japanese dance and theatre, and Western modern dance.

Butoh typically features dancers with shaven heads and grimacing faces taking an eternity to finish even the smallest step. The goal, insofar as there is one, is to make the body an empty vessel, to focus the mind on a single image (a tree, for example) and embody it in movement. The butoh dancer eschews self-expression. Metamorphosis and improvisation are favoured over imitation and rule-bound choreography. The unconscious mind is purposefully at play.

It is this last quality that has stirred up the most fascination—and revulsion. Qualities the rational mind keeps at arm’s length—fear, aggression, brutality, anxiety, despair, sexuality—come home to roost in butoh. Furthermore, it is a form obsessed with death: “Human life is that of an upright corpse,” commented Hijikata, a pioneer of the style, rather pungently. The results are absurd, comic, grotesque, even terrifying; and yet, like the cathartic effect of Western tragedy, a kind of salvation and liberation—even joy—is achieved. What often emerges from a butoh performance is a new beauty free from the taint of social convention.

Yumiko Yoshioka’s “Before the Dawn” is a perfect example. The piece takes place, as the title suggests, on the border between night and day—the ideal “head space” for butoh, where time and emotions are disjunctive and malleable. A bare hand, like a shadow-play bird, rises out of a lump of red fabric, looks around and attacks the mound it came from; then another hand joins the pecking order. The fabric loosens and a hooded figure in a voluminous wrap stands up. Later on, all but topless (her dress slowly disintegrates throughout the piece), Yoshioka transforms into something be-tween a bumblebee, a fetus (large head, short flipper-hands) and a hummingbird. Then another sequence of compulsive scratching ensues. With a sense of dawn fast approaching, Yoshioka washes her hair and body with sand. Violently shaking her head, particles fill the air like morning mist. It’s a startling end to an impressive display of shape-shifting, unpredictable movement.

Inspired by novelist Saiichi Maruya’s assertion that the modern Japanese citizen is neither alive nor dead, Kim Itoh’s “Body on the Borderline” opens with Itoh on the floor in a white shift. Behind him, three nude men, lit like figures in a Caravaggio painting, begin slowly, almost imperceptibly, to rotate on their fixed points: with a kind of shame and sorrow one hand covers their faces, the other their genitals. Rising and falling like a condemned man, Itoh painfully drags himself across the stage on his knees, hands tied behind his back. The manipulation of sound (the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony), time (it is played twice) and movement (excruciatingly slow) is ingenious. The glacial becomes natural as a waking dream: it seemed to take an age for Itoh to cross the stage, yet only a few minutes had passed.

However, the trancelike effect is disrupted when the Fourth Symphony’s Saltarello is blasted from the sound system. The movement is based on a traditionally fast-paced and sprightly Italian dance (the kind that goes well with drinking and romping) yet Itoh merely rotates on his knees with a heavy head, as if the Andante were still playing. In contrast, the three nudes, in tune with the music’s tempo (and, in a bizarre way, its spirit), frantically try to release their genitals from their own iron grips. Their faces and bodies madly bend in all manner of contortions. When the music ends, the three simply walk away as if the spectacle hadn’t happened at all.

“Body on the Borderline” finishes with an Itoh solo (this time soothingly accompanied by the Adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major), the only part of the performance that to Western eyes resembles dancing. A slow tendu here, a rond de jambe à terre there and perhaps the loveliest parallel bourrée I’ve ever seen. The overall effect of such simplicity is poignant and transcendent.

Ironically, in the act of performing their fears and obsessions, Itoh, Fortier and Yoshioka prove that we are not alone in our thoughts, however maddening and anxious they may be. Rather, as Itoh’s second piece suggests, misery loves a dance company. “I Want to Hold You” depicts young people in search of love. After various bungled pursuits and attempts to pair off, all the dancers finally slow-dance off the stage without any sense of fulfillment, leaving Itoh moving alone with an invisible partner. If solitude is our fate, the dream of connection remains.