You gotta love the inimitable Louise Lacavalier. Thankfully Rainald Di Cesare and Bernar Hébert got her on film. This is a clip from a film directed by Di Cesare and Hébert. La La Human Steps, a Canadian dance company (1980-2015), performs Human Sex 1985. Lead soloist Louise Lacavalier turns the tables on ballet and its traditional prima ballerina. With this clip I provide the lead in and fade out, otherwise the clip is exactly as Di Cesare and Hébert filmed it.
Randall Kay and Louis Seize wrote (and perform on stage) the punk score that’s perfect for this choreography. But watching the film I had deja vu all over again. My mash-up sound track turns the tables a bit as well.
Butoh began in the 1950s as a reaction to traditional Japanese theater and western culture as it was being imposed on Japan during the post-war occupation. The founders, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, wanted a contemporary art form that was distinctly Japanese. The following performance is by Kazuo Ohno.
On the river bank we see struggle and frustration as Ohno pushes against and tries to climb an impenetrable wall. Is the wall a metaphor for power structures? social structures? The flower and ribbon band in his hair are the ornaments of a little girl. Indeed he expresses a child’s wonderment at times as well as spatial disorientation. The movement though is frail and jerky, not youthful, also not stereotypically feminine—the many contradictions within the frame resist categorization. The bent and hesitant movements become markers of psychic condition, not of a particular story or person. The ruffles tied on the back of the shirt are feminine, yet also suggest a strait jacket. While the white face and body paint are characteristic of Kabuki theater, butoh reassess its meaning in its allusion to beings covered in nuclear ash. Trauma is visibly evident and on a par with gender in this mining of the archive within the body. The movements invoke emotions that surely all have experienced across any gender, social class, or culture.
This is from the 1980 Experimental Theater Festival in Nancy, France. The music is “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, sung by Maria Callas. Ohno said that Callas and Puccini were “close to the Japanese.” Ohno used music and images to trigger his improvisatory movement. He said of his somatic performances that he found within himself both a little girl and a dying woman, often his mother.
“A Corpse Standing in Desperation”
Butoh emerged at the intersections of collective trauma, expressionist dance performance and East/West identity conflicts within 20th century Japan. In butoh’s somatic performances, whether intended or not, political statements emerge as personal and collective sufferings archived within the body are revealed.
“Alive, in each and every one of us, are countless individuals whose lifetime experiences, joys, sorrows, angers, doubts, and so forth have been successively passed down from one generation to the next. The physical form I assume now is but the fruit of what I’ve inherited from those who have existed before me. What, you might ask, has become of our ancestors’ ideas and emotions? Where do you suppose our creativity springs from? There’s no way that it springs forth from our finite and limited knowledge of life.”
Butoh, War, and Gender
Turn of the century Japan (Meiji restoration) was an imperialist, colonizing power, invading and occupying Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, and northern China by the 1930s. Such militarism exacted draconian and gendered expectations of its citizens. All males were conscripted into military service. Although not punished, those who were unable to pass the physical requirements were often socially ostracized. The female role was clear: marry and produce more soldiers. Poor females were sold to brothels where they were sex workers (Karayuki-san) at military outposts. “The young women were told that their bodies belonged to the state and that they constituted a form of female army.”1 This structuring of gender according to the needs of a nation is not unusual in human history. In Japan, however, loyalty and sacrifice for the state were particularly significant. Although individual rights were under discussion at the time, these were clearly subordinate to the goals of the patriarchal and warring state. While collective trauma due to war is not unique to Japan, it was experienced there most profoundly when atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000 people. Another 80,000 died later from radiation injuries. The intensity burned shadows of objects and people into the cityscape, the Hiroshima shadows. Photo: Public Domain
Male homosexuality had “a socially and culturally distinctive form well before the modern period.”2 Gendered, state-prescribed roles changed after World War II. The new constitution written during the occupation, heavily influenced by the American occupiers, “defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.”3 In post-war Japan the Japanese male was now an Americanized heterosexual. For example, a man was not eligible for promotion at work until he was married and had children. The female was now a consumer yet still relegated to marriage and family. Political trauma continued with the ANPO treaty between Japan and the United States with its militaristic right-wing dictates and the establishment of US military bases in Japan.
The Anpo protests, the largest in Japanese history (including a brutal police response), occurred when the US-Japan security treaty was being renewed, 1959-1960. The song by Kyu Sakamoto is about the loss he felt after the protests failed. It was an international hit, selling millions of records.
Mining the Body Archive
Butoh emerged in mid-century Japan as a somatic practice. The underlying mechanism in butoh is to unearth the self. “Movements are discovered rather than imposed.”4 One result of butoh as a self-revelatory practice is that gender is fluid and destabilized. “The concepts of otherness and ambiguity, particularly with respect to gender identity and sexuality, permeate its narratives. Drag, androgyny and fluidity are staple elements.”5 Yet in viewing early butoh performers, gender can only be fully grasped by understanding the body as an archive of collective traumas: the traumas of “national body,” nuclear war, and political struggles.
Tatsumi Hijikata Photo: Public Domain
A male presenting as female challenges gendered roles as experienced during Japan’s Meiji restoration and post-war society. Ohno lived through both. His embodied femaleness is not a mature woman, not a mother, neither wise nor particularly functional, and not sexual—resisting the female roles of mother/sex-worker/functioning consumer. The deformed hand gestures, death-mask face, and tremulous shaking also reveal the trauma of wars and nuclear disaster, exposing psychic damage and “dark truths behind the Japanese social mask.”6 Ohno’s performance in the video from Nancy, France is a complex response to the warring state and social mores regarding gendered roles.
Since its early practice butoh has spread globally and been adapted in numerous ways. Decades later what holds true throughout all of its different forms are:
The rejection of technique and the concept of a style or school
Movement is somatic. “Ohno believed that movement that was too big or too fast endangered his ideal of body-soul-unity, which requires that movements be directed by the soul.”7
Primal exploration of the dark side of the human experience
“Its hunched crawls, seizure-like convulsions, and silent screams aim to uncover ugly or uncomfortable truths.”8
“Words do their job in most circumstances, but movement can probably say a lot more.” – Kazuo Ohno
01. July 2022 · Comments Off on Re-rooting – an Exhibit at Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan · Categories: Event
Darat al Funun is a wonderful art gallery in Amman, Jordan. It’s built on the site of an ancient Greek altar to Hercules (you can still see it), the ruins of a 6th century Byzantine church, and the compound of Ottoman administrators. Today it’s an art museum featuring contemporary Arabic art and rotating exhibits on social issues. Set into one of Amman’s seven hills, the location is beautiful and haunting. While visiting in May, 2022 I was particularly struck by their exhibit “Re-rooting.” While I’ve been involved in conservation and environmental issues at various times in my life, this exhibit presented information that was new to me and gave me another perspective on the mess created by the human need for endless profit at the expense of everything else. Knowing the exhibit would never get to America, I photographed some of it and present it here as a way to share the information. At the end of this post is a link to the web page at Darat al Funum with all the artists’ names and further info.
This is the mid level of the compound with the galleries for rotating exhibits. The bowls of hay are symbolic of the loss of connection between the community and the animals that feed us.
This is one of the galleries for Re-rooting.
I can’t reproduce the entire show here such as the videos, which included an interview with an elder making bread in the traditional way. The story of wheat and bread in Jordan is one aspect of Re-rooting. In the other galleries were presentations on other agricultural/political topics. I do want to include something that I found fascinating – the display on Jaffa oranges. It explains the real reason why the British empire stuck its greedy nose into Palestine in the first place. It turns out the answer is citrus fruit. In the 1800s the British navy ruled the seas and to do so before refrigeration, etc. it needed citrus fruits to prevent scurvy in its sailors.
Event photography is about candid shots, informal portraits and groups. From the thousands of photos in my “Event Photography” archive I’ve selected my favorites. These appeal to me because they capture something human, fun, or unexpected.
Running from his mob boss and the law, sadistic thug Chas falls down a rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland style. His exit from a seedy and gratuitously violent world into a psychedelic and gratuitously sexual one projects two fantasy experiences for the straight, adolescent male. As such Performance is a typical film pandering to the male gender. It’s a man’s man-world with lots of creative torture on the streets. The two women who inhabit the wonderland mansion serve up sex fantasies in the favored prototypes blonde bombshell and pubescent nymph. Pherber, the blonde, also tends to Chas’ wounds. How convenient when your sex priestess is also a mother figure, at the ready to kiss your boo-boos. The au courant counter culture embellishments that gave the film its cache can’t disguise its underlying service to the hormonally-driven male persona.
I suppose it’s admirable that the actors were so dedicated to their “deep-method” craft. They say James Fox spent time with real London criminals to perfect his character. Too bad the film didn’t otherwise extend its authenticity. Since when does Uncle Mobster read Borges? Performance tries to be Warhol Factory cool but the sanitized bodies, all glamour and no grit, are more in the spirit of Playboy Magazine. Also, those were not psilocybin mushrooms. The red aminita muscaria will kill you within 48 hours.
The duality-themed reveal when Turner and Chas reverse identities is foreshadowed with mirror shots and pretentious dialog.
“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way is the one that achieves madness.”
[Guffaws in the room]
Lots of food for Freudian analysis, I suppose. What a nightmare for some poor schmuck psychiatrist. Performance is a postmodernist journey into the male psyche on a quest to aggrandize its ordinary propensities. As a female viewer I experienced it as a singularly effective sleeping pill.
While enjoying Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite I was reminded, surprisingly, of Kiss Me Deadly – a brutal noir from 1955 shot on location in Los Angeles. In Parasite, Ho uses elevations as a metaphor throughout the film: from a subterranean shelter to a high-ground wealthy enclave reigning over a below-the -sewer-line slum. The protagonists move up and down in a vertical world that mimics their aspirations as well as their attempts at survival.
Kiss Me Deadly also sets up a vertical world. Dana Polan noted, “The hard-boiled detective is a cartographer, who finds that the spaces of the city are not random but are traversed by networks of class, power and privilege.” In Kiss Me Deadly the networks negotiated by Mike Hammer are signified by various stages of decay or luxury: a marble floor in an upscale art gallery or classical statuary flanking slate steps contrast with cracked wall plaster lit by a single light bulb in the ceiling.
A prominent architectural feature throughout is the staircase. Sixteen distinct stairways, interior and exterior, are seen in Kiss Me Deadly. Staircases exploit all the spatial characteristics of cinematic space (landscape within a frame): width, height, depth, elevation, and density. In Kiss Me Deadly, they run the gamut from the softly curved concrete steps that lead from hospital to street, to the worn-out wooden stairs that crisscross the façade of a boarding house to narrow, interior stairways deep in shadow. They are stylish, softly curved, physically taxing, steep and dangerous, dark and sinister. They go up, down, across, and reverse direction. Where a staircase begins and ends is rarely visible. For example, the stairs at the base of 121 Flower Street are hidden by shrubs. In the cheap hotel where Lily Carver lives, camera work suggests the deeply shadowed, turning staircase leads to an infinite abyss.
The first staircase we encounter is a treacherous set of multi-story concrete steps leading out of an alley down which Hammer throws an assailant. That perilous tumble foreshadows Hammer’s own downfall and the implied fall of humankind building throughout the film.
Staircases are a metaphor for the twists and turns in Hammer’s quest, the physical and psychological spaces that must be navigated from one witness or clue to another. The physical attributes of each staircase match, of course, the social status of its location. More importantly, as David Hockney noted, “The way we depict space is connected to the way we behave in it.” Staircases become locations for controlled and intentional action vs. uncontrolled actions based on fear and panic. Camera work and lighting intensify these experiences. The dangerous stairways that stitch together Hammer’s movements across Los Angeles are metaphorical conduits through a psychic landscape in hell. Human life emerged from the sea and so the cycle closes there as a nuclear fire sends Hammer and Velda down the rickety steps of a criminal hideaway and into the surf.
Kiss Me Deadly Inventory of Stairs
Hammer throws his assailant down steep concrete stairs that descend from an alley
Night, deep contrast, shadowy, almost infinite, spiked posts
Urban squalor, danger
Ray Diker’s boarding house – the beginning of the steps are hidden by shrubs, wooden steps emerge
The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough
Cristina’s apartment building, beautiful white, carved balusters and a dark rail
Deeply shadowed by overhead landing
Genteel middle class
Short set of brick steps to the street, full view of Victorian façade
The stairs between storefronts (Aldezma shoe repair) are straight up, steep and narrow, leading to Lily Carver’s decrepit apt.
shot from above we see Hammer’s shadow grow larger, the staircase turns 3 times with 2 landings
Poverty and crime, sinister
Camera follows black man descending wooden stairs to the street as Hammer ascends
transition into a boxing gym
Violence as a vocation
Slate and stone stairs to Evello house, flanked by statuary
Upper class, pretentious
Stone staircase from back of house to pool, wrought iron railing
Upper class, fashionable
We see the curved staircase inside Evello’s mansion
Money for luxury
Hammer parks his car underneath Angels Flight, twin concrete stairs lead up to Hillcrest Hotel
Inside staircase of Hillcrest Hotel, painted, simple balusters
Functional but not fashionable or modern
Back to the stairs at Lily’s apartment, views through bannisters and landings
Poverty and crime, sinister
Overhead shot as Hammer descends Lily’s apt. stairs to street
Surreal camera work
Shot looking up as Lily descends those stairs
The shot reverses 3 times
Beach house stairs – wooden, utilitarian, no balusters, unfinished unpainted
Behind Hammer we see a modern staircase at Hollywood Athletic Club
Upscale modern, members only
Short set of concrete steps under an awning of the Athletic Club lead to the street
The protective awning ushers members in and out of the club
Back to the stairs of Flower Street
The stairs twist around and up in one direction, then reverse direction, ornate but the paint is old and rough
Genteel urban decay
The stairs of Mist Modern Art Gallery
Stairs not shown, we see only Hammer’s movements upward and the fantastic modern art
For the wealthy consumer
Stairs inside the beach house lead to an exit
back lit by nuclear fire
Extreme mortal danger
Hammer and Velda struggle down the wooden stairs of the beach house
the culmination of greed, violence, lust for power
On Location in Los Angeles
Hammer’s investigation takes him to the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, a turn-of-the-century prosperous neighborhood that had devolved into a slum of rooming houses by 1940. In the 1960s urban renewal razed Bunker Hill and rebuilt it as a civic area. The Los Angeles Times has an excellent timeline with photos here.
Bunker Hill in 1901. By 1955 most houses had become rental units for immigrants.
Bunker Hill today.
Copyright 2020 Alice Gebura All Rights Reserved
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Alice, Lynsey, Barry, & Fred visit the Peace Garden & Roberts Bird Sanctuary at Lake Harriet. All of us met taking photography classes taught by Xavier Tavera at the UMN. This was our first excursion that was NOT a class assignment – we just got together to visit and take photos as the spirit moved. It was great to hang out while drifting about looking for photographic inspiration. Photo sets appear in the order in which I received them!