First, a couple of cartoons…
This second installment of movement musings begins (or rather ends…) below with a variation of a video sampling technique that I covered in “Kneee, Sugar” of the last section of Everybody Dance Now 1 (Knee, Sugar, Hammer, Shame). I also look at what was suggested by “Shame”: what might be seen as anti-dance, or what I call adansual.
I first became acquainted with the Australian band Bumblebeez 81 via their suggestive “Pony Ride” from 2002. Five years later they released “Dr. Love,” the promo for which involves a parody of a dance music video that could have been shot on a smoggy day along the Los Angeles River. All the performers sport Sharpie-ed chest adornments: pushbuttons and keyboards, chains, phones and headphones, a bandolier, a mink stole, an LP, even sham shoes. Rapper Christopher Colonna sports markered bling, and his sister Queen ViLa, an eyepatch through which she easily sees. The promo’s coda reprises the song’s sonics with pushbuttons pushed and keyboards keyed, essentially A/V sampling.
Bumblebeez was not Colonna’s first project, nor his last. In 2016 he issued Visions under the name Ccolo, a collection of prior releases (e.g. via Magic Pirate). A video of one track, by Carla Uriarte, contains many moves—birds, board and wind surfing, tongue action and Colonna choreo—animated and live action. The song takes its name Diwali from the Hindu+ autumnal festival of light, dance being but one component of the celebration.
Composer and singer Holcombe Waller has explored both Indian and Indian spiritualities, as evidenced by his promo videos for his masterful “Shallow,” which initially deals with the thorny male-female binary, and “Hardliners,” below. The latter is intricately choreographed (by Miguel Gutierrez), but it is more: performance as prayer in the guise of a ballad.
If Waller moves from the intimacy of gender declaration and a single bed to a more visible space (and back again), the Japanese performance form called butoh is staged boldly for public inspection in this regard—for an earlier generation. Its originators Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno rent the partitions of propriety early on: sexual frankness and gender fluidity were elements of their presentation. Supposedly “a reaction to occidental modern dance, which had swept through Japan on a wave of Western influence,” butoh’s inspirations and accompaniments did not exclude authors like Genet and Hemmingway, artists like Monet, and composers like Bach and Puccini.1
A decade ago, Anohni, under the name Antony and the Johnsons, emblazoned her CDs with still images of Kazuo Ohno costumed for his signature work, Admiring La Argentina (1977), in which he dons the garb of the famous dancer Antonia Mercé with whom he’d been obsessed for fifty years.2 These are not one-off images, however—Anohni’s culled curiosities. They are integral to butoh practitioners’ oeuvre if one views early videos, and performance titles such as “Forbidden Colors” (from Mishima),3 “Notre Dame des Fleurs” (from Genet’s novel), “Treatment Spot” (from Les Chants de Maldoror by Isidore Lucien Ducasse, containing themes of homosexuality and other transgressions), and “Secret Ceremony for an Hermaphrodite.”4 “Rose-Colored Dance” (1965) is not necessarily an accessible introduction to butoh, but it definitely defines its blurred lines on several levels. Just as it becomes conventional, it becomes adansual.
In video imagery from three years later Hijikata prefigures Ohno’s portrayal of La Argentina with a glitz gown (shown below). He also parallels performance artist Hermann Nitsch’s Aktionen (Orgien Mysterien Theater) in which—among other actions—a performer is spread-eagled by cords.
Admiring Kazuo Ohno
I took in a solo performance by Kazuo Ohno, just shy of his eighty-seventh birthday, at the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles in 1993. The evening’s full performance was titled Admiring La Argentina, and its five sections, which had been directed by Hijikata originally in 1977, included Ohno’s relatively literal homage to the South American dancer. But it was another, austere section, about which I wrote (in of all things, a newsletter for mineral specimen collectors).
Perhaps the most profoundly affecting performance I ever experienced came from this same realm of temporal tweaking [long durational performance], by the late Kazuo Ohno, master of the Japanese form known as butoh. In Marriage of Heaven and Earth, Ohno stands before a piano, accompanied by Bach’s famous Prelude No. 1, moving in and out of an overhead spotlight, being born, aging, dying, and ascending in front of your eyes, merely by moving achingly into and out of the light. The effortless rigor with which he executed this work was cultivated by years of preparation.5
The following rather lengthy street performance by Gary Brackett, Omaggio a Kazuo Ohno, is very much in the spirit of the piece that so moved me in 1993.
I’m compelled to remark here at some length on Brackett’s choice of music—regarding sexual preference, practice, and presentation. Adagio for Strings is of course by Samuel Barber, who is pictured alongside his life partner Gian Carlo Menotti (and Aaron Copland) on the cover of Michael S. Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy,6 with the baton in Brackett’s chosen recording held by Leonard Bernstein, who also had same-sex relationships (even while married to Felicia Cohn Montealegre).7 Skipping ahead, Brackett also employs Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, written in 1977 not long after the latter composer’s death. It is similar to Barber’s Adagio—both distract the listener through repitition—but its canon form is more meditative than the former’s aching, actorly arch. Unlike Pärt, Barber and Britten were contemporaries and both were partners in life with distinguished musicians, Britten’s mate being the tenor Peter Pears. Pärt’s compositional career is of interest in the context of one of my recent posts. A 2014 profile of Pärt states that he “fell foul of the Soviet censors with Nekrolog (1960), the first 12-tone music written in Estonia.” Jon Appleton, who I wrote about earlier this year, is a red-diaper-baby contemporary of Pärt; he rejected as “vapid” 12-tone technique, which he’d been told was the “music of the future.”
In Brackett’s homage to Kazuo Ohno, he uses a classical-pop-classical-pop scheme. And so, sandwiched between Barber and Pärt, is “By This River,” performed also in 1977, by Brian Eno who began his career with Roxy Music. As author Eric Tamm explains,
It is against the backdrop of glam rock that we may situate the androgynous public image Eno presented to the public in his work with Roxy Music […]. In a sense, Eno was simply in the right place at the right time, able to capitalize on his image’s shock effect for publicity purposes while “glam” was at its peak. But, at the same time, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his subsequent explanations […].8
Tamm cites a 1978 interview in which Eno says,
Before I ever joined Roxy, I got interested in wearing clothing that would have been considered effeminate. I didn’t like masculine clothes. The Western version of masculinity opposes rational man against intuitive woman. The part of my being that interests me has always been my intution.9
Which leaves George Harrison, whose “Give Me Love” is from the 1973 album Living in the Material World. The LP’s lyric sheet is stark against its dark sleeve, featuring a by-now-familiar image from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness edition of the Bhagavad Gita.10 As explained in the Wikipedia entry for the album,
this painting features Krishna with Arjuna, the legendary archer and warrior, in a chariot, being pulled by the enchanted seven-headed horse Uchchaihshravas. With the album arriving at the height of the glam or glitter rock musical trend,11 [Alan] Clayson writes of this image: “a British teenager might have still dug the gear worn by Krishna in his chariot … Androgynous in beaded kaftan, jewelled fez and peacock feather, and strikingly pretty, the Supreme Personality of Godhead was not unlike some of the new breed of theatrical British chartbusters.”12
Krishna had many guises (Gopal, Govinda, Hari…), as did Kazuo Ohno, demonstrated by the following excerpt from Edin Velez’s documentary Dance of Darkness (1989).
I’ll close with a theatrical homage to Hijikata and Ohno, but with this caveat: by focusing on but two artists, I’ve not acknowledged the deversity butoh offers. Search streaming video providers for these other names (and their Japanese language script characters). If something grabs, watch. If it doesn’t, give it a bit more of a chance before moving on.
- Kazuo Ohno, program notes, Admiring La Argentina, Japan America Theatre, Los Angeles, 02 Oct 1993.
- See cover art for the Antony and the Johnsons album The Crying Light (2009) and EP Another World (2008).
- “Forbidden Colors” (1959) is credited as the first butoh piece, and debuted Kazuo Ohno’s 21-year-old son Yoshito, as noted by William Andrews, “‘Butoh’: The Dance of Death and Disease,” Japan Times, 28 May 2016, and Yoshito Ohno’s bio (Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio).
- Ohno, program notes.
- I did not second-guess my memory when writing this. Tonight, however, I did find that New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning, writing in the 31 Jul 1981 edition about an earlier presentation of the work, describes such movement, but in a way that neither confirms nor counters my recollection. See this photo from a performance of Marriage of Heaven and Earth; the grand piano is visible, barely, behind Ohno.
- Michael S. Sherry. 2007. Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- The three composers studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where Barber met Menotti in the late 1920s; Bernstein entered the school in 1939 after graduating from Harvard.
- Eric Tamm. 1989. Brian Eno: His Music and the Verical Color of Sound, Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 89.
- Tamm, 89–90, quoting Eno from Arthur Lubow, “Eno, Before and After Roxy,” New Times, No. 10 (06 Mar 1978), 72.
- The image I link to is cropped, whereas Harrison’s is square, depicting the charger’s legs and hooves.
- Bob Woffinden. 1981. The Beatles Apart, London: Proteus, 71–72.
- Alan Clayson. 2003, George Harrison, London: Sanctuary, 324–325.