BWW Reviews: Swedish Butoh Performer Su-En in SOOT
Last Friday evening I had the slightly unnerving, yet ultimately rewarding experience of attending my first Butoh performance. Butoh is a form of art movement that developed in post war Japan in response to Japanese contemporary dance at that time. The founders of Butoh felt Japan's appropriation of Western dance trends and obsession with Ngo theater too stifling and sought a new form of movement expression. Butoh defies definition. It can be performed with or without an audience, and may or may not utilize movement. Typically, the performer is minimally garbed and wears white full body makeup. Thematically, the work explores deeply human topics, often relying upon extremely slow and controlled movements alongside grotesque imagery. One of the first ever Butoh performances ended with the performer holding a chicken between his legs. Basically, with Butoh anything goes.
I had prepared myself for this performance by doing some light reading on Butoh and watching a few videos. Unfortunately, my planning was not thorough enough. I went to the wrong address and booked it in a cab across the Village. I arrived, barely in time, to the Theater for the New York City, where one of Sweden's foremost Butoh performers, Su-En, was performing her work entitled "Soot."
Arriving in my harried state, I was immediately struck by the environment I had entered; the space differed sharply from the busy cityscape of New York in its quiet darkness. The black box theater was dimly lit. The stage appeared infinitely immense in its blackness. The audience was unusually still and quiet in their anticipation of the work. The atmosphere was distinctly charged, yet still.
Soot lasted for one hour with no intermission. Su-En was on stage, solo, for the entirety of the work. The piece began with her fully clothed, draped in yards of black fabric. As the hour progressed, she slowly disrobed to reveal a simple black dress. Su-En's movements were hyper controlled. She was incredibly deliberate in her every gesture and expression and used the hour to explore the intensity of darkness. Su-En's work is heavily influenced by natural processes and colors. The blackness of the space created a world for the viewer and performer between all other colors and spaces. Her inspiration for Soot is rooted in the factuality that all life must return to carbon (soot) and the exploration of that dark inevitability.
"Soot" was set to a haunting score by British composer Lee Berwick. The music incorporates found sounds and atonality. Lacking a driving beat, Su-En moves through the music, not in time with it. A driving principle of Butoh is the idea that one is moved from without and does not initiate movements internally. It would seem that the same can be said for this performer's relationship with musicality. Su-En was not entirely unmusical in her approach, but seemed to explore the space in her own time.
As the performance progressed, areas of the stage were illuminated; an abstract and blurred backdrop; a mysterious pile of shimmery dark fabric; the clothing that Su-En discards. These choices direct the viewer's focus and relate directly to her movement. The set and lighting design are beautiful in their simplicity.
This long solo work succeeds in drawing the audience into her world and allows one to really experience the intimacy of the performance. I would recommend seeing Su-En, and have, to anyone who asks. She is a captivating artist with a unique vision. From what I've seen, Butoh requires the performer's total attention and energy. There's no faking anything or the effectiveness of the work is lost, so it's crucial that the performer be fully invested. Here Su-En most definitely succeeded. Her work made me feel uncomfortable afterwards, which is probably a good thing. Though not the "typical Butoh performed in body make up, Su-En has definitely inspired me to see and learn more about this unique style of movement (or, depending on the performance, stillness).