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A Dance of Darkness That Sheds Light Too

For avant-garde pioneer Min Tanaka, the \o7 butoh \f7 style has inspired a continual quest.

November 25, 2001|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to Calendar

Subversive. Dangerous. Angst-ridden. These adjectives characterize butoh , the avant-garde Japanese dance form that grew out of that nation's response to the bombing of Hiroshima. Loosely translated, butoh means "dance of darkness." Drawing on the ancient forms of Kabuki and Noh (notably in their adaptation of the grotesque), butoh's founders, nonagenarian Kazuo Ohno and the late Tatsumi Hijikata (he died of cancer in 1986), were also reacting to--and rejecting--Japanese assimilation of Western style, including German and American modern dance.

A butoh progenitor and celebrated pioneer in his own right, Min Tanaka, born in 1945 near Tokyo, also studied ballet and modern dance. He too found himself doubting those art forms, and after attending a series of Hijikata butoh performances in 1972, Tanaka abandoned modern dance to search for his own mode of expression, honing, along the way, skills learned from the master.

What Tanaka found has resulted in a lengthy career marked by startling, often extraordinary performances, where an excruciatingly slow movement vocabulary, a silent scream, and white-painted faces and bodies reign. Indeed, Tanaka performed naked on a street in Ginza--one of Tokyo's most sophisticated commercial areas--culminating in a 1977 arrest; he founded his own company, Maijuku, in 1981, touring the world for 16 years; and he has collaborated with the likes of writer Susan Sontag, musician Meredith Monk, and visual artist Richard Serra.

A frequent performer in New York (he has a lifetime contract to give annual concerts at the P.S. 122 performance space), Tanaka has appeared in L.A. only twice--first in the early 1980s, then in 1995, in a solo performance that The Times' Lewis Segal praised for its "unsparing intensity."

On Friday, the dancer-choreographer brings his newest company, Tokason, to L.A.'s Japan America Theatre for the U.S. premiere of "Caprice: Guests From the Dark." Inspired by Goya's etchings "Los Caprichos," "Guests From the Dark" is one of a series of Tokason dance theater pieces based on these 80 works depicting everyday life and people in 18th century Spain. The 65-minute performance will climax with a separate 15-minute piece outside on the plaza, under a full moon, in a collaborative effort with Los Angeles Zen archery master/performance artist Hirokazu Kosaka.

Tanaka spoke by phone, via translator, from Body Weather, his 5-acre working farm and dance studio, which has been home and training ground to more than 500 dancers.

Question: In 1981, when you formed Maijuku, you also opened a performance studio, Plan B. Hijikata had stopped performing by that time, but came to see you dance and asked, "Can you become shorter?" What did he mean by that remark?

Answer: I have to clarify what he said in Japanese--we're not talking about actual measure so much [Tanaka is 6 feet tall], but talking more about a person, some sense of humbleness and [the ability to] belittle oneself. That particular word, "belittle," [means] I am trying to not merely depend on power or force, but to [be open] and continue searching for dance. It has stayed with me because Hijikata is not dead for me.

Q: Why did Maijuku disband in 1997 and what was the impetus to form Tokason last year?

A: The institutionalization was bothering me, so we dissolved. My motivation for forming Tokason was this: [The name] is a fictional village [Plum Arcadia, in English] that comes from a book of essays [by poet Issui Yoshida], and in this village, we have no choice but to live our own way. It's the individual's responsibility to make everything work versus [being] part of a big organization [where] you depend on someone else.

Q: Tokason is multinational, with dancers from Brazil, the United States and Spain as well as Japan. You're bringing four out of the company's 10 dancers with you, one from New York. Some believe non-Asians cannot authentically dance butoh . What are your thoughts?

A: [I don't like] the word, "multinational," rather I would say it has to be open to anyone, because everybody has the right to participate. When people of different backgrounds--be it cultural or social--come together, naturally there are misunderstandings, [and] it's important to accept those different elements.

Some people consider dance [as] bodies moving, something clearly visible. To me, dance includes a lot of things invisible. Sometimes a person laying on the bed is a butoh dancer, so, of course, anyone from any country can be a butoh dancer.

Q: In 1994 you were inspired by artist Edvard Munch to create "Dance of Life" with a group of Norwegian dancers that premiered at Norway's Olympic Cultural Festival. Now you've made a work based on Goya. What was the genesis of "Caprice"? What can we expect to see and hear?

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