Alenka Loesch: A life in Butoh

Fashion designer Alenka Loesch continues her connection to Butoh

On Saturday night, matriculation at Butoh College officially begins. Presented by Mizu Desierto, a champion of the Japanese dance form through her company Water in the Desert and The Headwaters Theatre, the “college” will include performances, dance classes and community dialogue. The faculty includes such major names in Butoh as Natsu Nakajima, Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, Diego Piñón and Yumiko Yoshioka, many of whom studied with the original Butoh master Tatsumi Hijikata.

Butoh started in Japan after World War II, founded by Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno as a way to find a dance form that was not Western and not traditional Japanese but something of its own. Although in the public mind Butoh is reduced to ashen-white makeup, contorted body positions and brutally glacial movement, it is a way for the body to move or speak for itself through unconscious improvised movement.

Last week I sat down with Portland-based costume and fashion designer Alenka Loesch to begin discussions on designing costumes for a dance that I am choreographing. In the process I discovered that she is a third generation Butoh dancer, who has worked with several well-known Butoh choreographers, two of whom will be here teaching and performing as part of Butoh College.

Over several days via email, I asked Loesch many questions about Butoh from her perspective.

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Alenka Loesch and Shinichi Iova-Koga/Photo credit: Heather Rogers

What are you currently doing? What is your background?

I am the liaison between the clients and the magazine at Artslandia Publishing as my day job. I have been a professional dancer and costume designer since around 1995 when I joined the Tamanos company, Harupin-Ha, and toured with them to France. I met the Tamanos in Berkeley in 1991 when I was invited to dinner at their house. I had just come back from 2 years of teaching English in Czechoslovakia (as it was called at the time!) and was in culture shock in my own culture, but I knew I wanted to study Butoh and was planning to go to Japan to pursue a teacher.

I lived, danced, worked and toured with the Tamanos for many years where I met Shinichi Iova-Koga. He and I founded our own group, known as inkBoat, and took our show on the road. We first went to CESTA, an artist residence in Tabor, Czech Republic, and then went on a tour of Europe. While there, I took part in a workshop project with Yumiko Yoshioka in Graz, Austria. After that workshop she asked Shinichi and I to join her company called Ten Pen Chii Art Labor. We moved to Schlöss Bröllin (outside of Berlin) where we were artists-in-residence for two years.

During my residency I not only danced in many Ten Pen Chii productions but I also designed and crafted all the costumes for DA-PPi and assisted Yumiko in all her workshop projects during that time. I then went on to work with Minako Seki and Antagon Theatre Aktion, also going on tour to Europe and Columbia. Fast forward several years after I moved to Portland, I met Mizu and she and I created a duet which we called “Ephemere.” We taught Butoh and performed “Ephemere” in a US tour. I also studied with Diego Piñón in a master class in Mexico. I loved working with all my teachers and feel that they are my second family.

What attracted you to Butoh and did you have previous dance training?

I started dancing when I was three years old with the usual ballet, tap and jazz. I continued dancing until I was in high school where I changed my focus to theater. When I was a senior in high school in 1987 my mom took me to see Sankai Juku in Dallas, Texas. It was a moment of epiphany for me. I became obsessed with Butoh, but obviously in Texas in 1987 there were no teachers. It wasn’t until I went to Czechoslovakia to teach English and explore the art scene there that I came in contact with Butoh again. I took a workshop from a Russian company called Derevo, that mixes classical ballet with Butoh and performance art. That is when the real search for a Butoh teacher began, in 1990.

When I came back to the States, I went to the Bay Area and after one week of being home I serendipitously met a filmmaker who had made a documentary on Tamano-san because he is a national treasure of Japan. My search was over. My studies began the next day. I continued to seek out teachers and have studied with most of the Butoh predecessors, including Kazou Ohno, Saga Kobayashi, Ko Murobushi, and many others. When I got my master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Art at San Francisco State University, I was able to seek out my own teachers and so I went to Japan, Mexico and Europe to study Butoh.

What is your definition of Butoh?

Butoh is an expressionist dance that crosses many boundaries. It crosses over into spiritual practice for some and pure performance art for others. It is a portal into self-discovery and emptiness. It is a practice and a way of life. Some of the original movements created by Hijikata were derived from the peasant farmers of Japan, and the dancers, including my teachers, all danced in nightclubs to make a living, so Butoh is a lifestyle and permeates daily life as much as daily life permeates the movements of Butoh.

We as a group always cook together, garden together, dance together and meditate together. We train hard and push the limits of the body in the same way that other dance does but in a grounded methodical and poetic way in which a cue or image is given and the body, having been emptied, and approaching a trance-like state, moves in an interpretive way. The training can be somewhere between martial arts, Noguchi Gymnastics, sometimes hip-hop and sometimes like a Buddhist monk. I trained so hard and ate so well, I felt super-human, like I could defy human boundaries. Butoh is very powerful in this way and is beautiful to watch, too, because it is a stylized form of the human condition.

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Ten Pen Chii, Da-ppi, Tachelas, Berlin, 1998, In order from left to right: Diane Granitz, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Alenka Loesch

What is different about each artist you have worked with?

They are all very different with a common thread that binds them. When I met Hiroko-san for the first time and I didn’t really know anything about Butoh, I asked her, “What is Butoh?” She replied with a question, “Who AM I?” she said.

I will never forget that because, though it made very little sense at the time, it means everything to me now. The Tamanos teach in a very experiential way. They push the students to perform all the time in many different circumstances even without much training. They include their students in all aspects of the work and daily life.

All of the Butoh artists I have worked with do a series of warm-up exercises that are similar in content and yet very individually interpreted. Yumiko Yoshioka teaches through workshop performances that she choreographs and has the students perform together after a couple of weeks. All of the teachers teach some of the basics of Butoh like “water sac” and “hanging by a string,” but some, like Diego, put a more deeply therapeutic, ritualistic spin on the experience, and some are more focused on the physical shapes and choreography.

Can you briefly describe the exercises “water sac” and “hanging by a string”?

“Water sac” is the basic idea that as humans we are around 75% water, our skin contains the water and so we are basically a “water sac.” A beginning Butoh exercise is to stand with feet hip’s distance apart and gently shake the water sac. We do many exercises with the water sac, from heating it up to emptying it out. One of our goals in Butoh is to erase the ego, and water sac helps us with that goal by unifying us as humans and turning off the mind as a dancer, in order to let the images move the body instead of the mind. “Hanging by a string” is another of those basic images that every Butoh dancer uses to inform the movement. The idea is that you have a string coming out of the top of your head growing up into the sky, and you are hanging from that string, like a puppet.

How did you find these teachers?

One led to the other like a connect-the-dots puzzle.

Once I was in Europe I met many Butoh dancers and when I went to Japan I started at Ohno-san’s studio and went from there studying with Kim Ito and others whom I had a connection with through my European contacts.

What was it like studying in Japan vs other countries?

Studying Butoh in Japan is kind of like finding the Holy Grail because you are tapping into the source from which it was born and the inspiration for the movements is all around you. However, most of my teachers were Japanese, besides Diego, and so my experience was authentic through and through no matter where I studied.

How does the training develop a dancer? What are the classes and the training like? How do they get at what the essence of Butoh is?

The one common thread that I experienced with ALL of my teachers is the crossover from the dance studio to real life, meaning we cooked together, ate together, cleaned and gardened and sometimes even all slept in the same room. We sat in hot springs and climbed mountains to watch the sunrise on New Year’s morning, which is a Japanese tradition. These experiences capture the spirit of Butoh. The training itself is extreme and pushes the boundaries of the human body. In order to perform the movement properly , one must build the strength and the stamina to perform. Every teacher has their own take on the basic set of Butoh exercises, and these exercises are the key to capturing the essence of Butoh, in my opinion. They take many years to learn and there is always deeper you can go.

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Dream of a Blue Girl, Solo, 2008 Conduit Summer Dance Intensive, Alenka Loesch

What was it like making costumes for Butoh? Did you know how to sew beforehand?

My grandmother taught me how to sew because what is there to do in the middle of Texas nowhere (where I grew up) but make your own costumes and play dress up? Hiroko-san taught me everything else about costuming for Butoh. I watched her and helped her make Harupin-Ha costumes for many years. I then began making costumes for myself and my own dance company, experimenting with found materials because of budget restrictions. When I made costumes for Yumiko in my artist-residency at Schloss Bröllin, I branched out and explored materials not normally used in traditional costuming, like wrapping industrial saran wrap around two poles and blasting them with a blowtorch to make large sheets of melted plastic and then cutting my patterns out of those sheets and sewing them together.

I love using non-traditional materials and making a costume. For Antagon Theatre Aktion with Minako Seki, I used rolls and rolls of bandage material and sewed them together to make a stretchy bodysuit. I love to play and push boundaries with my costumes in the way that Butoh pushes boundaries.

What is your process for creating costumes for dance?

I usually start with drawing sketches of my ideas and making collaged dream boards to get the feelings and the mood of the piece sussed out, and then I begin looking for materials. I then make the pattern or drape the mannequin. I love draping because it is a very sculptural way to work and I tend to think sculpturally about costumes. I spend time work-shopping the costume on the dancer to fine-tune and sculpt the costume on the body as it moves.

Butoh College events

Performances
8 pm March
Natsu Nakajima along with local artists Meshi Chavez, Teresa Vanderkin, Tracy Broyles and Kat MacMillan

8 pm March 25
Koichi and Hiroko Tamano with local artists Stephanie Lanckton, Pepper Pepper and Wobbly

8 pm March 31
Diego Piñón with local artists Mizu Desierto, Douglas Allen, Christopher Mankowski, and Dreaming Body.

8 pm April 2
Yumiko Yoshioka with local/regional artists Mizu Desierto + Stephanie Lanckton, Sheri Brown (Seattle), and Helen Thorsen + Mary Cutrera (Seattle).

Community Dialogues
7 pm March 16, The slowing of Time in Butoh Aesthetics
7 pm March 23, Rewilding the Body
7 pm March 30, Unpacking Our Domestication and Domination
7 pm April 3, The Future of Feminine through Embodiment

Workshops (Most workshops are already full, check with Mizu Desierto for availability)
Natsu Nakajima March 15-19
The Tamanos March 22-25
Diego Piñón March 28-31
Yumiko Yoshioka April 1-3

In January I interviewed Portland Butoh artist Meshi Chavez about his perspective.

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