Updated: Feb 12, 2020
Embryotrophic Cavatina, the latest production by Vancouver dance stalwarts Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, defies easy categorization – and that is exactly what audiences have come to expect from butoh. Emerging from the ashes of World War 2 in late 1950s Japan, the butoh style of dance is generally considered to be a reaction to the rigid formality of traditional Japanese art forms such as kabuki. In butoh, the dancers are naked – stripped “literally and figuratively to the bone”, and covered in a chalky white substance. The dancers are Molly McDermott, Bourget, and Hirabayashi. The sight of contorted, pale bodies, illuminated in the surreal stage lights, is jarring. But, as the performers transition ever so painfully slowly from pose to pose, a deeper, more introspective state of mind becomes attainable.
Accompanying the performance is the powerful “Requiem for my friend”, by Zbigniew Preisner, who composed the work in honour of his late friend and frequent collaborator, the legendary Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is a lavish and powerful choral and orchestral work, almost operatic in scope, contrasting starkly with the slow, deliberate motions of the dancers. Bourget and Hirabayashi had expressed a desire to set the music to dance since the album’s release in 1998 – Embryotrophic Cavatina has had a protracted gestation.
Butoh is not easy consumption for an audience - its slowness alone will always keep it from mainstream acceptance. But at 70 minutes, the ambiguous Embryotrophic Cavatina is a challenge for even a dedicated viewer to absorb. It is by turns chaotic, grotesque, spastic, and beautiful. The provocative title offers an important clue to interpreting the piece, but it is merely a starting point. The performance is a narrative-free frame which viewers must fill for themselves. Bourget and Hirabayashi are intentionally evasive about fulfilling projected audience expectations, “There is no filler movement, no intention to please, entertain, or to be ‘beautiful’”. Embryotroph refers the liquefied material in which the mammalian embryo lives immediately after conception. A Cavatina is a simple song or melody. Thus, Embryotrophic Cavatina is trying to evoke something visceral, something primal, something indelibly human. It is a kind of bizarre allergic reaction to the egoism and sensory over-stimulation that has become the defining characteristic of the modern world. Experiencing it is akin to the practice of meditation where the benefits, and I daresay the enjoyment, comes only once one’s grip on conscious thought is relinquished. As the program boldly states: “Our mission is to arrive at a state of performance that is transcendent to our egos”.
The musical score, and therefore the performance, is split into two parts. In the first part, entitled “Requiem”, the dancers simultaneously contort themselves into a variety of poses, each suggestive in its own right. Their faces morph into silent screams and tearful smiles. They perform apart from each other, but in unison. There is an inscrutable order to the proceedings. The second part, “Life”, gives way to a more kinetic display. The dancers don rudimentary floral garments, and Hirabayashi alone continues with the more controlled choreography of the first part while Bourget and McDermott begin to alternate with wilder gesticulations. The backdrop is splashed with the childlike paintings of Tsuneko Kokubo (from her exhibition Plant Memory). The performance then builds to a grand visual and aural crescendo. Following this is a brief reprieve as the music recedes from the spotlight. There is a softening in the dancers’ poses, and as they gravitate towards each other in the center of the stage – an almost comforting release after the oppressive heaviness of what has gone before. I found myself almost hoping for them to come together in an embrace, but they never do.
The presentation is by the formidable Kokoro Dance company, which Bourget and Hirabayashi formed in 1986. Having created over 190 works and performed more than 1000 shows since that time, the company has been named by the Georgia Straight as “one of the ten best reasons to live in Vancouver”. McDermott has been a frequent collaborator in Kokoro Dance and performed in a solo show earlier this year. (Note: While he was named in the original line-up, Billy Marchenski was absent in the show I watched on 23rd September).