Dance of Darkness

You've seen the flexed feet, the heavy plies and the gut-wrenching contractions that characterize the Martha Graham-based ballet rebellion that is Western modern dance. But compared to the Japanese dance form butoh, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Created by Tatsumi Hijikata in 1959 and made popular in the '80s by the Japanese performance group Dairakudakan, butoh grew out of anti-American protests in reaction to the atomic bomb. Near-naked dancers covered in white rice powder (the ghosts of Hiroshima?) slowly grimace, curl their fingers, twist their arms, hunch their shoulders, drop their heads and practically limp across stage creating horrific but strangely beautiful images. Hijikata described butoh as "a corpse which stands upright with the energy of despair."

But butoh is more than a freak show. Its grotesque shapes are the result of powerful forces battering the body; the butoh body is like that of an old woman deformed by years spent stooping in the hard labor of the rice paddies. It is the implied history in the movement that sucks an audience into the often plotless performances. After all, who can watch indifferently when confronted with a person, even a performer, in physical (and therefore spiritual) crisis?

Buto-Sha Tenkei, performing at the Jewish Community Center's Kaplan Theater Wednesday and Thursday, represents one of three main lines of butoh directly influenced by Hijikata. The husband and wife butoh duo Ebisu Torii and Mutsuko Tanaka founded Buto-Sha Tenkei after dancing for nearly a decade with the legendary Dairakudakan. With the help of Torii's hell-raising choreography, Tanaka has made quite a name for herself in the West. A Los Angeles Times critic called her "the diva from hell," not for any backstage prima donna antics but because spectators have sworn her piercing eyes actually glinted red on stage.

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Buto-Sha Tenkei sold out its performances last year in DiverseWorks's black box theater. There, Torii and Tanaka were joined by two younger dancers in a seamless 80-minute dance-theater dreamscape called "Nocturne." At times painfully subtle and slow, but somehow never less than mesmerizing, "Nocturne" presented a disturbing series of surreal pictures: bared teeth, clawing hands, the bowed back of a beast of burden, a cloaked figure that grows to nine feet before your eyes, a Puck-ish creature trapped in a column of gauze and light, and a silent, slow-mo cross between a cackle and a sob.... Watching "Nocturne" was like being a voyeur in someone else's nightmare, which is only fitting since Torii spent the nights of its creation walking the streets and parks of Tokyo. He told the Seattle Times that he developed "the sense of being able to hear people sleeping in their beds."

No word yet on what Buto-Sha Tenkei is bringing to town this year. Odds are it won't be pretty.

-- Lauren Kern

Buto-Sha Tenkei performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, February 10 and 11, at the Jewish Community Center's Kaplan Theater, 5601 Braeswood, as part of Dance Month. For reservations call (713)228-0914 or (713)729-3200. Tickets are $20; $17 for students and seniors. The performers will also conduct a $10 master class at the JCC Tuesday morning, February 9, from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

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