Through the lens of butoh



Trajal Harrell


Last Friday and Sunday

These works by Trajal Harrell are an investigation into Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the originators of butoh.

Having delved into post-modern dance and Harlem voguing to create a hybrid movement style, Harrell sought to look at notions of spectacle and performativity through the lens of the Japanese dance of darkness.

In The Mood For Frankie was decidedly muted in the light of the abovementioned. On a makeshift runway bookended by fringed Oriental rugs, Harrell and his two performers, Thibault Lac and Ondrej Vidlar, cavorted on in T-shirts and shorts, filling the air with the smell of cigarette smoke. Teetering on their toes throughout the hour- long performance, they revealed the intricacy of a slow, excruciating transfer of weight from one foot to the other. 

The performers mostly danced solo, signalled by rather abrupt changes in music, which ranged from festive percussion to pop to the blues. It all sounded muffled, as though the performance was distant.

The work drew from Harrell's vast sources of inspiration, but instead of a stunning middle ground, it found itself in no man's land. Not only did the performers not fully wear their costumes, they also draped only one piece of clothing over themselves at a time. Likewise, the audience was left with disparate pieces of the experience, insufficiently immersed. 

The Return Of La Argentina, presented here as a bonus track to In The Mood For Frankie, bore many similarities in form. With a bright pink dress held up against his body, Harrell, the solo performer, traipsed past the audience into the performance area.

Admiring La Argentina, a renowned butoh solo dedicated to the famous Spanish dancer, Antonia Merce, was the subject of Harrell's investigation and he posited his body and quirks as a site for the 1977 solo. 

Again, the work felt frustratingly disparate and lost steam midway. Harrell was swept up in the madcap scheme of events, ruffling his skirt vigorously and letting out forceful cries. The repetition was wearing as it did not cause the performance to escalate. 

Reprieve came in the form of a mobile phone alarm, which Harrell had set at the start of the show. He placed a garish knitted pouch on each of his hands and twirled them like a deranged clown, looking at each audience member in the eye as he waved goodbye. The mood lifted, like Harrell's eyeline, which was downcast throughout. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Through the lens of butoh'. Subscribe