Mind, Body, Soul
"Only when, despite having a normal, healthy body, you come to wish that you were disabled or had been born disabled, do you take your first step in butoh," wrote Tatsumi Hijikata, who developed the Japanese post-war performance art of butoh with Kazuo Ohno. He meant, I think, to challenge conventional ideas about dance and the dancing body, looking instead to the depths of the unknown for movement material. Given this view, it seems especially apt for Manri Kim, who lost the use of her legs after getting polio at three, to embrace butoh as a source of creativity and expression.
Since starting the group TAIHEN in 1983, the Japanese dancer of Korean descent has been making a case for physically disabled performers like herself: dance is for all, including those for whom normal locomotion is impossible. Along the way, she found a mentor in Ohno, and the two hour-long solos she staged at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival recall butoh's gnarly physicality and intense inward focus. Directed by Ohno's son Yoshito, who has often performed with his father, they evoke the emotional burdens of women across cultures. In a string of jaggedly paced episodes, Kim for the most part succeeded in expressing their doubts, grief and guilt.
To make up for her limited mobility, stagehands are integrated into the action. They facilitate Kim's movements on and off stage, help her change costumes between scenes, introduce and remove props at specific points in time. Like their counterparts in other forms of Japanese traditional theatre, members of this black-clad crew or kuroko are considered invisible but you admire how they work silently in the shadows to keep things running smoothly. They are as vital to a TAIHEN performance as the dancers.
I imagine that movement styles in the troupe vary from performer to performer, since different physical handicaps call for different means of getting around. The way Kim moves is thus unique to the limitations of her body. Pushing her forearms against the floor, she inches forward with her legs folded under her. Her fingers curl and flex awkwardly in spare gestures. And perhaps because it takes a lot of effort for her to travel from one point to another, her dancing proceeds gradually, punctuated by periods of stillness.
Kim premiered My Mother in 1998 as a tribute to her mother, a noted Korean classical dancer in her time, who had died that year. I liked how it evoked the elder Kim's personal struggles (she had to shift to Japan after World War II) and artistry (she was said to be known for dancing the seungmu, a monk-inspired piece rooted in Buddhist ritual, which Kim tried to enact), though I couldn't see the mother-daughter conflict that Kim mentioned in the post-show talkback.
Still, it had a clarity that 2005's Howl Under The Moon seemed
to lack. Kim played four different roles, but little in the movement
distinguished one character from the other: a "mother wolf"
who eats her child to live, a "witch who abandons her past",
a black-suited figure at odds with her female identity, and a lovelorn
girl from an Indonesian folktale. In one scene, however, she wore a
quietly forceful gaze that softened and hardened as though reacting
to textured memories. It was a startling moment. Perhaps this was what
Kim meant by dancing with her tamashi, her soul.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /