Butoh Takes Gender Discussions out of Shadows

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For many individuals, the concept of gender has a clear, black-and-white form: either one is a man or a woman. Others, however, might think of gender as a panel consisting of different shades of gray. In order to explore the murky gray panel, Butoh artist Joan Laage from the DAIPANbutoh Collective and Kogut Butoh took to Velocity Dance Center on Saturday, October 5, 2013. She performed her one-night-only solo show, The Engendering Project: Casting Shadows.

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Joan Laage in “Ever Betweening”
Photo by Briana Jones

The show opened with Laage’s solo titled Ever Betweening. Four hangers hung from the ceiling on red ropes. Three of the four hangers displayed different garments: a gray coat, a red coat with a hat, and a red dress and hat. A slideshow appeared in the background, which showcased pictures of Laage’s Butoh performances, while a string trio played somber music. In promotional materials for the show, Laage described the work as a research on how gender fluidity and transformation have continued to shape her work over the past few decades. These themes were apparent in the slideshow, as it exposed Laage’s works throughout her career and how she has transformed to express different gender identities.

When the slideshow ended, Laage entered. Dressed in an oversized tuxedo with a top hat, she slowly glided sideways across the stage. As she sped up her steps, her trousers fell to reveal a dress underneath. She swiftly tipped her head backward to drop the top hat and take off the coat.

From then on, slowly but with a strong focus, she made her way to each hanger and interacted with each garment in a different way. She treated the red coat with vigilance, as though it might engulf her physique and subsequently, her identity. The oversized gray coat was a comforting lover, the red dress a security blanket. She held up the red dress and walked on tip toe to the audience––like a clumsy fashion model keen on impressing with her resilient presence. The piece ended with another slideshow that emphasized Laage’s androgynous identities in her works. The piece, with its intelligently dense themes and concentrated execution, invites further discussion on gender binaries, gender fluidity, and gender performance.

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Joan Laage in “Arbor Corpus”
Photo by Briana Jones

After intermission, came Arbor Corpus, a shorter piece packed with traditional Butoh ideas: the agony of dying, the ecstasy of living, the cyclical process of regeneration, and the conflict between those ideas. The stage lights shone on Laage, a lone figure in white, curled up on center stage. The lights shifted to project a shape made of intertwining lines, resembling twigs of a bird’s nest or brain neurons. The string trio conjured sounds like taps, hisses, and screeches of strings rubbing one another. As sounds filled the room, the figure eerily slithered and withered––as though dying and unsure whether to keep living or move on to the next life. The atmosphere was uneasy and tense. Throughout the piece, it became apparent that the uneasiness was just the beginning. Laage’s movement quality began to change as the musical melodies escalated. She stretched and extended her limbs like a phoenix rising from its own ashes and continuing to soar. As the climax passed, her energy faltered and she slowly returned to a curled up, tense position, a dying figure controlled by an unseen force. Her journey, accompanied by intelligently crafted sound effects and melodies, became a powerful metaphor for life, death, and the struggles in between.

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Joan Laage in “JJ”
Photo by Briana Jones

The last piece, JJ, was another interesting take on gender identity through the use of transformation. Laage entered the stage in cowboy attire. With a rough-and-tumble, masculine demeanor, she made her way across the space while whipping a rope. She continued to play the cowboy role with added gestures to convey different personalities. She became clumsy, arrogant, and even animalistic, vocalizing noises like a predator heartily feasting on its prey. At the end, still in a tough demeanor, she slowly unbuckled her belt, unzipped and lowered her trousers, took her hat off to reveal her thigh-length black hair, and unbuttoned her shirt to reveal her breasts. Like a chameleon, Laage possesses the ability to swiftly change between characters. As she undressed, her mannerisms changed to seductive and sexual while the stage lights faded out. The lingering impression of JJ was the stark juxtaposition between a traditionally masculine archetype and what it can turn into when symbols of feminine sexuality are thrown into the mix.

In addition to the performance, The Engendering Project: Ever Betweening Speakeasy, a forum exploring topics surrounding gender fluidity introduced by the show was held October 6, 2013 at Velocity. See http://seattlebutoh-laage.com/index.html for more information on Joan Laage’s Kogut Butoh or http://www.daipanbutoh.com/ for information on DAIPANbutoh Collective.