BWW Review: Carrying Butoh into the 21st Century with The NY Butoh Institute Festival
A packed house, even on a rainy Sunday afternoon in NYC, speaks of great success. It also indicates the respect that Vangeline commands as an artist and missionary of Butoh. In recent years her audience and recognition have expanded in appreciation of her efforts to bring Butoh into the 21st century. Those efforts include curating The New York Butoh Institute Festival, which is what drew this particular crowd to Theater for The New City on this blustery day.
Upon entering TNC's largest theatre space, the audience was greeted by a long train of newspapers that appeared to reference a bridge to nowhere. Fifteen minutes later, the concert began with ominous notes of Stew Dworkin's music. Suddenly the middle of this newspaper bridge began to shiver and rise until it formed a mound, then continued that transformation into a monster with a gaping maw. This beast snapped its jaw shut, creating a hill out of which sprouted a wavering hand that moved as if it were a bird. Lauren Farber slowly extricated herself from this hill of news to reveal herself as a crazed zombie bride bedecked in a dress of missives. The former bridge of print became her wedding train, wavering in the wake of her languorous yet thrashing body as she lurched towards the downstage right corner of the theatre, screaming bloody murder with no sound escaping her mouth in echo of the earlier print monster and its snarling teeth. Fader moved fearlessly, with zero concern for slamming into the walls or audience around her; following her bows, it became apparent that she had impaired sight and either had no idea how recklessly close she came to injury or had such razor-sharp senses that she knew the margin for error unto the nth degree. Whatever the case, this was Butoh at its most thrilling.
On the tail end of the concert, Brenda Polo's Unknown was equally thrilling and downright freaky with its evocation of a bondage slave trapped in a sex dungeon. Polo has a hyper-flexible neck and can stand on it at extreme angles. She is also a master musician who times her movement to maximum effect, alternating extreme slowness with bursts of speed as if she were affecting a horror movie jump-cut in real-time. She began the solo on her back as live music from her daughter Nicole Tenorio Polo--which alternated a mundane aural-scape with intensely pulsating with haunting vocals--created a disquieting ambiance. From there, Brenda Polo began to creep around as if she were a toddler being held down. This became an impossible back-bend, which allowed her to raise up higher than seems humanly possible due to the unworldly pliancy of her neck. At a certain point, time seemed to stop until she jerked her body off the floor, leaving it hovering horizontally for a moment before falling flat with a loud thwack. Following a blackout, Brenda Polo appeared standing and proceeded to walk like a four-limbed animal with her head buried at the neck into the floor. Again, this was only possible because of her fascinating suppleness.
Taken together with its costume--tattoos along each ridge of her spine; arm and leg bands; and a silk face mask that covered her entire head--and uncanny movement quality, Unknown proved a deeply unsettling experience. If I'd been told that Brenda Polo was drunk, I would have believed it because of the wavering yet controlled manner in which she ambled about the stage. But the intensity of this performance was such that she could not have been impaired in the least. Much like Lauren Farber's solo, Brenda Polo's work is unlike anything I have ever seen.
Yazmin Gonzalez's solo, Desire, combined her training in Egyptian Classical Belly dance with Butoh's customary torpid pace. While watching her peel herself off the floor at this rate of speed was impressive, and beyond anything I could accomplish, the invocation of desire failed to develop beyond its initial manifestation. I felt similarly about Margherita Tisato; she had a game plan and executed it perfectly, though without approaching the disturbing extremes of Lauren Farber or Brenda Polo. Conceptually she excelled at fully embodying every moment of A Thousand Times and Never Before, and yet I came away yearning for something more than a sensation stretched beyond the span of comfortable timing. This does not take away from the intensity that she pumped into her performance; perhaps I'm unable to appreciate Butoh that does not replicate the thrill of Vangeline's 21st century vision.
The New York Butoh Institute Festival 2019 originally ran at Theater for the New City on October 12th-27th, 2019.