“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” - Henry David Thoreau
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Defining the art of butoh dance defies the very purpose of the art, in a way. Developed in Japan in the post-WWII era, butoh is at once highly expressive and deeply meditative, an intense interpretive dance that uses strength and contortion to explore any topic that the dancer wishes to express. Joan Laage, one of the most accomplished butoh dancers to ever come out of the United States, will be performing her latest show, “The Engendering Project: Casting Shadows” at the Velocity Dance Center this weekend in three parts.
Laage developed “The Engendering Project” alongside video artist Kaoru Okumura and an electric string trio comprised of Jackie An, Doris Bartha and Emily Price. With help from a CityArtist grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Laage conceptualized, trained and rehearsed for the show with her collaborators to delve into a subject that fascinates many in Seattle’s art scene. This particular butoh dance is an examination of masculinity, femininity and androgyny in the interpretation of everything from clothing to the way people move.
“What does ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean? When we look at movements and postures, what seems more male or female?” Laage was asked to examine at the genesis of “The Engendering Project.” An associate of hers was in the process of writing a book about artists and the artistic process; she asked Laage to concentrate on the issues of gender perceptions through the lens of butoh, the medium that she often employs.
Laage came to butoh after it was an established movement in its native Japan, but before it had much presence beyond the island. She discovered it while studying modern dance at the University of Colorado in the mid-1970s. At one time pursuing a major in French and Spanish, dance called to Laage, especially upon her exposure to Indian classical dance late in her undergraduate studies. This took her to the Center for World Music in Berkeley, California, then several years of globetrotting to locales ranging from New Zealand to Japan.
It was that initial time in Tokyo that introduced Laage to butoh, an art that would capture her heart and imagination for decades to come. Watching and learning the dances of cultures outside of her own gave her an ever-growing perspective of art beyond American borders.
“I started thinking about how people coming from long traditions create work as contemporary beings. How do they evolve? How do they appear in today’s cultures?”
As her interest and experience developed, Laage eventually studied butoh with one of its original practitioners, Kazuo Ohno. Ohno, who died in 2010, espoused the pure emotional power of butoh, saying that he preferred moving his audience to tears over more intellectual expressions. He and his son, Yoshito, taught and spread butoh through students hailing from all over the world. Laage’s work in Japan with Ohno resulted in her dissertation work through Texas Woman’s University.
Still traveling often but making a home base in Seattle, Laage has planted roots that support this city’s butoh scene, specifically with groups she helped found like Dappin’ Butoh, and the more recent DAIPANbutoh Collective. Their main event of the year is the Seattle Butoh Festival, running through the month of August, with several performances by individual artists and groups who give their own take on the dance.
Pulling from the animistic traditions of classical Japanese culture, butoh often focuses on aspects of nature, but is not limited to pastoral topics. Many of Laage’s performances engage with identity and more existential, human questions.
“How your unique personality, thoughts, body and experiences go into creating your work… that reflects back on you about your sense about what it means to be human,” Laage says of the highly personal nature of her art. In developing “The Engendering Project,” she plumbed deep memories and persistent feelings in her life about the fluidity of gender identity, even manifesting in her practice of Tai Chi to find balance between “male and female energies.”
“Before a transformation happens, one needs to pare down one’s own looks and energy. It’s like the Zen beginner’s mind or the blank canvas. The audience finds their own stories in it. It’s not about telling people or showing people. It becomes a catalyst to sense your own life.”
On October 4 and 5, Laage and company will present “The Engendering Project” in full at the Velocity Dance Center. Seats are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. On Sunday, October 6, Velocity will also host Laage and other artists in a roundtable discussion about gender, transformation and art as part of the SPEAKEASY Series. This event is free, with the opportunity for donations.