Meshi Chavez: take it slow and easy

An evening of butoh at The Headwaters follows a deliberate dance toward grotesque beauty

While the enthusiastically greeted variety pack of Pacific Dance Makers was selling out a pair of shows at BodyVox over the weekend, yet another dance project was packing ’em into a smaller and more experimental venue: The Headwaters, a brusquely carved and down-homey performance space on the northern reaches of the city, in a warehouse hard by a railroad track in a gully near Northeast Vancouver and Farragut.

Chavez in "… or be dragged," 2011. Photo: Stephen Miller

Chavez in “… or be dragged,” 2011. Photo: Stephen Miller

“Being Moved” was a showcase for students of the butoh performer Meshi Chavez, following nine weeks of intense workshopping. At Saturday night’s show, the last of four, a quartet of dancers – Chris Larsen, Maya Victorine, Joe McLaughlin, and Rene Smith – performed solos in a nonstop first act, each giving way seamlessly as the next arrived onstage to take her or his place. After intermission, Chavez performed his own solo, “Tears of the Night Butterfly,” illuminating both the exquisite altered states achievable in this comparatively young art form, and the difference between teacher and student.

What was on view was as much about process as ultimate product. Clearly, Chavez has gone farther down this road than his students, achieving a command and quietude in his movements that can come only through long and devoted practice. Yet even before he took the stage the evening held a rough beauty, an earnest and sometimes hypnotic immersion into an alternative vision of what “dance” can mean. The altered state was provided partly by the music and sound effects of three performers (Lisa DeGrace, Adrian Hutapea, Roland Toledo; the starkly sensitive lighting was by Dug Martell) who were seated at the side of the stage, manipulating computers and microphones to create a wall of sound that seemed like the aural mud from which visual clarity was to emerge. The sound was like a whirlpool, patterned and insistent, with occasionally recognizable snippets: a baby’s crying; the startled radio announcement of John Lennon’s assassination.

Butoh was born in post-World War II Japan, at least partly in response to the devastation unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a new day in Japan (and indeed, in the world), one in which the horrific had become a part of the everyday, and the implications of the carnage were widespread and deep, from health and economics to philosophy and politics and aesthetics. The world and butoh itself have moved on, of course, but the roots are still there, raw and exposed and somehow essential. Butoh’s beginnings meant embracing the grotesque as a vital element of life, and therefore, of beauty. Its style – if that’s the right word; it’s really more the expression of an outlook on life – has intriguing parallels in visual art to the German Expressionism of a few decades earlier, the hallucinatory religious visions of Hieronymus Bosch from several centuries before that, and even the physical twists and psychological intrusions in Francis Bacon’s 1969 portraits of Lucian Freud on loan now to the Portland Art Museum. In each case, beauty and depravity are inseparable.

Butoh is also a deliberate art. If Balanchine was fast, faster, and fastest, butoh is slow, slower and slowest. It’s as if, following nuclear destruction, the only plausible way forward was to pick slowly and carefully through the rubble, taking it all in, feeling every part of the body to make sure it hadn’t disappeared or become permanently and even genetically disfigured, and committing to movement only after long and deep deliberation. In neoclassical ballet, a pause in the swiftness can create a break in the pattern and a moment of dramatic tension. In butoh, which proceeds at a glacial pace, speeding up creates an almost shocking catharsis.

In Chavez’s interpretation of the art form, at least, butoh also seems to be about progress and hope. (And not just Chavez’s interpretation. One of the finest and most moving dance performances I’ve ever seen was “Offering,” a cleansing and quietly stunning outdoor duet in Portland’s Jamison Park by the masterful Eiko and Koma on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.; I recorded their performance at the time as “holy and profane, inseparable, wrapped into one.”) The object of butoh is to immerse oneself and one’s audience in all the possibilities that life presents, and emerge with a new understanding of wholeness. In his program notes for “Being Moved,” Chavez writes: “It is not enough to say, ‘I understand my whole body.’ That is like saying you understand the universe. You can conceive of it but you can not understand it until you begin to study the individual pieces. … step into the unknown and the journey truly begins.”

For these four students, the nine-week journey has produced some remarkable results. It’s obvious that what they’ve achieved is only a beginning: you can feel the prodigious effort to internalize a difficult discipline so that it becomes natural and not forced. Uncertainty and effort break through, and on their faces you can sometimes see sharp emotion rather than the calm that in a more experienced practitioner veils it. But it’s a very good beginning, with moments of clarity and beauty – when the large and imposing Larsen, for instance, who has the sturdiness and strength of an iron gate, suddenly began to whirl and whirl, like an unfettered wind.

Chavez, stripped to his briefs and covered in the ghostly white makeup that can make butoh seem unearthly or in an alternate zone, gave a performance that was notable for its control and fluidity, and its ability to pull the audience into the moment. While he writhed and disjointed his limbs his face remained placid, absorbed in the process without clue or comment. It wasn’t, for me, perfect: a few passages, including a couple of pelvic thrusts that might’ve seemed more at home on a Chippendales stage, jarred me out of the flow. Yet this was art on a high order, compelling and transforming. Chavez is preparing a new show, “Rhinoceros,” to debut this spring. It’ll be intriguing to see where it takes him, and where he takes us.

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