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DANCE

Butoh in the badlands

A quest for a pure form of expression leads choreographer Oguri to create austere art in a stark landscape.

May 30, 2004|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

By the side of a desert road -- past the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, a radio tower and the hole-in-the-wall bar Stars Way Out -- two Japanese fish flags billow slightly in the wind. They signal a whitewashed house up a dusty driveway, where a sign reads, "The Truth Is Out There."

Here on a recent weekend, a group of people has gathered to begin a 100-mile journey on foot through the desert, a trek organized by Los Angeles dancer and choreographer Oguri.

Four years ago, Oguri, who is short and sinewy and goes by one name, began investigating this daunting terrain as a locale for dance. Mostly, he searched and performed alone, his only audience a photographer. Returning to the city, he often used his trips as the inspiration for theater performances.

In May 2001, for instance, he evoked his outdoor experiences inside the Electric Lodge Performance Space in Venice, feeling his way through clusters of enormous poles in an hourlong solo titled "Tie/Earthbeat" that a program note described as being about man's accommodation to nature.

Five months later at the same venue, another event featured an exhibition of photographs, journal pages and video sequences from Joshua Tree plus a performance centered on the body's struggle to evolve from a fetal clump to upright mobility.

Oguri called his exploration "Height of Sky," and this latest undertaking, "Nowhere, Now Here," is to be its culmination -- his most ambitious desert project yet. The itinerary calls for two performances at journey's end, one just before dusk and the other just after dawn the next day.

Besides Oguri, the participants are an L.A.-based actor, Eric Losoya; a Spanish architect, Sergio Ortiz; a Dutch dancer, Frank van de Ven; a San Francisco photographer, Roger Burns; a Southern California TV director, Robert Scott; and a Pasadena high school teacher, Sonja Sung.

"Not like a quest but like an adventure" is how Oguri has conceived the journey. "To put the body into chaos."

BLISTERS. BEAUTY

The desert -- a monotone horizon when viewed through a car window -- is a vivid, ever-changing landscape up close. Beginning at the southwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park on Sunday afternoon, Oguri and his cohort are to take a route with a loopy C shape, traveling clockwise.

Each day, from sunrise to sunset, they will walk "through the middle of nowhere, across land that is usually outside of human radar," Oguri says.

And so, over the course of a week, they climb an ominous-looking mountain: gray, rocky and challenging. They cross a plateau, suddenly revealed like a garden abundant with flowers and cactuses. They follow washes instead of trails, traversing hard, rugged land, seeing Joshua trees, a rust-colored peak and a hill of black rocks. Sand dunes become dry lakes, wildflowers on the desert floor are succeeded by swarms of crickets. The walkers see desert turtles, rattlesnakes, a black widow. And once -- from afar -- they spot another human, a park ranger.

The weather, however, remains constant: relentless sun, temperatures hovering above 80.

In advance of the trip, Oguri buried water and food at different locations to be picked up along the way. Since the trekkers' garbage can't be abandoned, they carry it with them; in one backpack, the trash starts rotting. And they have to forgo any claim to privacy.

Without shelter, they sleep on the ground, often collapsing after a day's exertion. By Wednesday -- with 50 miles still ahead -- Sung's feet are covered with fresh blisters, and it's hard for her to keep up with the men. Oguri is carrying a walkie-talkie in case they need help, but Sung is determined to continue. She cries with every step she takes.

A 'SHOCKING' ART

Oguri was born 41 years ago in Tajimi, Japan, about 150 miles west of Tokyo. His interest in dance was ignited when he was 19 and saw a photograph of Tatsumi Hijikata, who in the late 1950s had developed what became known as butoh dance.

"It was very shocking to me -- it was so beautiful," Oguri says.

Working in a postwar society and influenced by the surrealist writings of Antonin Artaud, Hijikata developed ankoku butoh -- "Dance of Darkness" -- by rejecting the aesthetics of traditional Japanese dance and embracing instead disorder and the grotesque.

The Japanese character for butoh consists of two elements: bu, meaning "dance," and toh -- "step." As the name suggests, it's movement done close to the ground, a stomping form. Guided by improvisation, the dancers often perform nearly naked, covered in white paint. Butoh mixes elements of mime, slow stylized movement and neo-expressionist dance.

"Butoh strips the body to its essence," one of its leading practitioners, Min Tanaka, once said.

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