I could tell the performance I was about to witness late last month was extraordinary even before entering the auditorium, just from watching the audience trickle into Z Space in San Francisco. There was a man who had somehow fused his beard with a slinky-like spiral pipe and wrapped it around his neck like a scarf. There were a few women in Betty Page/rockabilly outfits and the attendant shellacked beehive and Winehouse eyeliner. One girl’s hair resembled a Pantone swatch sheet—literally—small squares of dye checkered her shoulder-length crop. One man, who we found out later was the set designer for the production, had sausage links hanging from his belt loops. There were leather and piles of silver, feathers and dreadlocks, tattoos and guy-liner. I’ve never felt like such a square; even before the performance began it had rendered my life meaningless.
As a prelude to Bad Unkl Sista’s latest production, “First Breath, Last Breath,” the performers proceeded into the lobby—slowly, staring at the audience, making gong noises on obscure instruments—before moving into the proscenium theater space. The procession gave the audience something the performance could not. Up close we could see the magnificently bizarre costumes devised by artistic director, choreographer, and soloist Anastazia Louise. It was a head-scratching amalgam of Victoriana, Burning Man, and Steampunk: gas masks, fishbowl mouthpieces, hoop skirts of shredded denim, toreador and Japanese hakama pants, Puritan bonnets, and of course the signature white full-body paint of Butoh.
What we could also see better in the procession than from the stage were the facial expressions of the performers (although they were by no means unreadable from the distance). These expressions reflect an integral characteristic of Butoh, which rejects the dictate of traditional showmanship that a performer must put his “best face” forward. Butoh revels in death and the grotesque aspects of living. The performers walked shivering and hunched over, their eyes rolled back, jaws hanging open and tongues dangling, heads lolling to the side, hands trembling. This overture was particularly powerful when one realized how seldom we witness the human body in this condition: only in the presence of someone very sick, damaged, or deranged. (continue reading)