I went into Allen Gardner Dance Theatre’s presentation of Black/Light with a lot of questions. I had heard that Jerry Allen, director of the group, had studied with Kazuo Ohno and was heavily influenced by Butoh. Through the program notes, I learned that he also studied kung fu and corporeal mime, two disciplines that I have also had experience with. I read several articles previewing the show, some calling it Butoh, some calling it Butoh-influenced, some trying to explain what Butoh is. My experience with Butoh has been through Dairakudakan and Eiko + Koma. While these two groups in some ways represent opposing ends of the spectrum of whatever Butoh is, I believe there is a common seed.
Here’s what myself and some friends came up with over post-show gelato: when a child drops their ice cream, they do Butoh. We all know what this feels like. The incredible upwelling of emotion and sensation overtakes the nervous system from within, and the body becomes accessory to this outpouring of raw expression. It is overwhelming, and even casual spectators cannot help but be engulfed. One of the original goals of Butoh was to subvert other forms of dance that were seen as too superficial.
So let me rewind and say that Black/Light is not a “Butoh show”, as many people described it. It was an eclectic evening of performance, some of which was Butoh. But it also included a comedia dell’arte piece, dance, and video. So all of the questions I came in with, including “What does American Butoh look like?”, were overtaken by another question: “Can Butoh share the stage with these other forms?” The answer I came away with was a solid “No.” The rawness and depth of the Butoh elements made everything else unpalatable. This means there was some very solid Butoh happening, in particular from Patrick Barnes and of course Jerry Gardner. But it also means that the dance was out of place, the comedia dell’arte seemed farcical, the photo collage distracting, and the silhouette work sort of boring. This wasn’t a flaw in performance. The performances were quite good, in fact. I could have watched Michael Watkiss run in circles, mouth agape and arms pathetically extended, for hours. He was a pleasure to watch throughout. It was the course of the show itself that confused.
Another aspect that was less than satisfying was the use of music. I felt that the choices of music were such that they forced some of the other creative choices, particularly the timing of certain sections. Often I felt that a moment was cut short, or that a piece was stretched too thin, because a musical cue had to be met. Please, let’s all find a composer or sound editor who can work with this group. I think it will give them the freedom to do some really excellent work.
Perhaps my Butoh beef is also ultimately about creative freedom. Jumping from one form to another is not as satisfying as abandoning form and just doing the work that feels true. I think this was a fascinating presentation, and I would love to see more work from Jerry Allen. But next time I would like to see his work, in his style. Maybe it will be Butoh, maybe it will be dance theatre, maybe it will be some sort of crazy synthesis of all that he has studied. But Black/Light felt like he forced his work to fit the styles of others, each piece a distinct element that had his creative touch but ultimately was not well integrated into the whole
Matt Beals is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Utah