butoh in the dark

05 Jul 2006 // places

The other night, I bumped into Paul who was going to Adobe Books to find a travel book for his road trip. Having nothing better to do, I joined him in the hope of passing some time browsing books. Instead, I was to stumble onto one of the most riveting performances I had ever seen in the Mission.

So we putter inside and I noticed a musician playing a clarinet at the counter. We struck up a conversation. "Oh," said Paul, "I used to play soprano sax, but I've always wanted to play the clarinet." The musician replied that he too, used to play the sax, but switched because the clarinet was a much more versatile and flexible instrument. "After all," the muscician said, "you can make a clarinet sound like a sax but you can't make a sax sound like a clarinet. But guys, you should stay hear to watch the butoh show coming up."

So Paul and I sat down and waited for the show to start, not that I had any idea what "butoh" was, except that it sounded vaguely Japanese. The musicien started playing the clarinet, a vaguely oriental sounding melody with any manner of shuffling changes in tempo. As the music trailed off into silence, the room was doused into darkeness.

From the platform that was raised above the entrance of the building, a figure crept out from behind a board, holding the candle in her hands. In the candle light, the face was hideous lit in an overdone chiaroscuro (full body makeup is one of the characteristics of butoh, which made the figure look ever so creepy). Her movements slow and ponderous. She first explored the top of the platform, using slow in careful movements, where every scrape of the floor, every rustle of clothing could be heard.

Very slowly she made her way down the ladder, with a reptilian grace. At one point, one of her headdresses caught on fire. She quickly pulled the piece of flaming clothing off and smacked it onto the ladder until it went out. Once she got to the ground, she made her way slowly down the shape of the bookshore. Adobe books is a small and disorganised space. It had a long narrow shape with pot-plants, sculptures and sofas scattered throughout the length of the shop.

It took a glacial age for her to make it to the end of the room. She would take slow, deliberate steps, sometimes pausing to explore all the objects in the room. She brushed past us, the audience sitting on the sofas as if we were ghosts. She would roll her frenzied eyes over objects in the room as if seeing for the first time.

Finally, she got towards the end of the room, and the clarinet came back to life. She disappeared behind a bookshelf, and I lost track of her. She then ran around the room, her quiet steps making her a moving target that was difficult to pinpoint. This was accompanied by improvised clarinet and some low-level lights. She ran through the room with a primal energy, like a coiled banshee, at times collapsing in the middle of the room, and the springing back up as if a puppet master pulled on a hidden spring. Screaming, crying, staring, I felt I had made contact with an elemental being.

Finally, after a round of traumatic collapsing and rising, the show ended. With barely a flourish, she snapped back into normalcy. The lights go back up.

What had I seen? I recall the chapter on Masks by Keith Johnstone and it seemed that "butoh" is a form Mask work, which encompases commedia dell'arte, voodoo possession, and classic clown work. In mask work, the wearing of the mask shocks the mind into more primitive states of being.