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DAIPANbutoh Collective: At Home In The Darkness

DAIPANbutoh Collective: At Home In The Darkness

Dance has the power to heal, transform, and unlock possibility. DAIPANbutoh Collective traverses the geography of butoh to find home and hope in even the darkest parts of the human experience.
DAIPANbutoh Collective performing. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

The dancer glides through the apartment lobby. Her gait is deliberate and snail like, slower than slow motion. Her skin is painted white. Her eyes are wide and ghostly. I give her a brief glance and see the void — the place from which we all come.  Something calls me to look closer, longer, deeper. And just beyond the darkness, I glimpse the primordial human experience.  I can feel it. The lobby door opens. There's a small crowd outside, and two more women, painted white, dance steadily about the pavement. Every step they take is tedious, but It's impossible to look away. I find myself waiting and wondering, what will happen next? This is DAIPANbutoh Collective.

“Butoh forces you to be present,” said Sheri Brown, who has been the Artistic/Programs Director of DAIPANbutoh Collective since its inception in 2009. “It's like being awake and at one with everything.”

During our videoconference interview, Brown said that this awareness and presence allows you to empty out all of the internal stuff every human being accumulates over a lifetime. The personal stuff but also the societal stuff and the ancestral stuff inherited through intergenerational trauma. It’s a process she learned from some of her first butoh teachers: Shinichi Momo Koga and Katsura Kan. I asked her what “stuff” she had cleared out of her own life.

“Butoh enabled me to get into my body,” — Sheri Brown

Sheri Brown dancing. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

She paused for a moment before answering. “Judgment from others’ judgment of myself,” she said. “Maybe judgment of others, too. But my particular pattern is self-inflicted shame and worry and perfectionism and trying to be worthy and just get it all right.” She added that she understands the importance of improving one’s artistic craft but that there is a big difference between judgment and critique. “Judgment is from a cruel voice,” Brown said. “Judgment is like a cycle of shame over and over and over again. It's not coming from a place of liberation but from a desire to block and control. On the other hand, critique might be harsh, but it's coming from a place of how it could be better.”

Sheri Brown recalled a time when the judging voice had not yet taken root in her body. She was maybe 8 or 9 years old and attending church service. Her mother was nearby playing the piano. The music struck a chord within Brown, and she began to dance, freely moving about the space — no fear of others’ judgment. For her, it was pure joy.

“My life was shaped by ballet, since I was five years old,” — Dhyana Garcia

Dhyana Garcia performing. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Dhyana Garcia (Diana Garcia-Snyder), the Graphic Designer/Fundraising Coordinator for DAIPANbutoh, has also found a sense freedom through butoh. Garcia grew up in Mexico and first discovered a place for herself in the world of ballet.

“My life was shaped by ballet, since I was five years old,” Garcia said. She described the ballet world as a place that is “deeply codified and full of stereotypes about how the body needs to be.”  But Garcia fit in to that world. She had the physique and grace of a ballerina. She was accepted there. And her family supported that journey.

“Even though I was fitting the mold of a ballerina, my body wasn't happy,” Garcia said. “At some point, it was like standing on my toes didn’t feel right anymore. And following a choreographer’s view or idea in contemporary dance, without exploring my own ideas of movement, didn't feel right anymore either.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what new direction Garcia would take with dance but while studying at Columbia College Chicago (1999 – 2004), she saw a performance by the butoh influenced dancer, Maureen Fleming.

“It was completely beautiful,” Garcia said. “But out of the norm because she was not doing ballet and she was not wearing clothes. And she was doing very little movement. Her body was just amazing, like a living statue.”

The Maureen Fleming performance lasted more than an hour, but Dhyana Garcia was enthralled with every moment of the experience. She would later go on to study with Diego Piñón who she says has seamlessly merged butoh and Mexican dance traditions, creating a new and culturally authentic dance form.

“It was neither a ballet nor contemporary dance,” Garcia said, describing the first Diego Piñón workshop she attended. “It was something that he created from his own experience. So, I encountered a very authentic, courageous way of movement, that I didn't think was possible. He was mirroring this healing power of movement.”

The healing and life-giving powers of movement was a recurring theme in all of my interviews with DAIPANbutoh Collective.

“I feel that if I stop moving, I'm going to die. — Kogut

Joan Laage (Kogut Butoh) performing.

“I feel that if I stop moving, I'm going to die. I don't really believe that. But I feel that. You know? It's a feeling,” said Joan Laage (Kogut Butoh), the production director/marketing director of DAIPANbutoh. Kogut, who was also a founder of the butoh community in Seattle in the 1990s, added, “As I got older, I realized that in life everything's always in motion. Nothing is static. There's no such thing as stillness except for you to cultivate solace using your energy. So, life is about change and the metamorphosis and transformation and motion. You know? Whether it's miniscule or larger or smaller.”

Sheri Brown gave her own take on the healing power of dance as she recounted one of her conversations with her mentor, Katsura Kan. Kan had asked her: “What do you want to be, an artist or a healer?”

“Like it was a choice,” Brown said of Kan’s dichotomy. “Like you could want to be this healing artist butoh person or you could want to be a contemporary dancer who constructs the rules and figures out how to really craft this work of art on the stage.” But Brown doesn’t believe it is a choice. She thinks both of these things could happen at the same time. Later in the conversation, she gently mentioned to me that in recent years Katsura Kan had been involved in a very serious controversy surrounding the suicide of one of his students.

Brown moved to Seattle in 2000 because she wanted to launch her career as a performance artist. She was a student of theatre and mime, and had graduated from Arizona State University. After arriving in Seattle, she began doing street performances, wearing white makeup, but she wasn’t yet familiar with butoh. She would ride the bus to and from the Pike Place Market where she would perform as a human statue. Then one day while riding back home from her street performance gig she sat next to a man who said to her, “I thought I knew all the white people in this town already.”

That man was the husband of Joan Laage (Kogut Butoh). “He told me about the Butoh Festival that they were putting on that year, and gave me a card,” Brown said. “And it was a really pivotal moment for me.” Brown would go on to study under Kogut and eventually founded DAIPANbutoh Collective with her, nine years later.

Kogut, grew up just outside Beloit, Wisconsin, a small town in the Midwest. She was always active, played sports, spoke French and Spanish, and developed her saxophone skills. She also won a prize for choreographing new dance steps while she was in high school in the 60s. Today, she often performs butoh outdoors.

“I can feel the wind change, the sun change,” Kogut said, adding that she spent a lot of time outdoors as a child even when it was wet or cold or a little too hot. “And I can feel when it's lighter or it's darker or it's slightly more humid. So, I'm like this weather vane or something on many levels.”

For Kogut, there’s something very exciting about big cities (she’s spent time in Tokyo and loved it); but at the end of the day the wildness of the great outdoors speaks to her the most. She described herself as an “earth person” who can see that there is something very ill about our modern society. She said that if she had an eraser, she would remove much of what society labels as progress: skyscrapers, junk food, and the excesses of consumerism. But if she had to consume or accumulate anything it would be experiences.

“Experience is fleeting,” Kogut said. “In other words, what you hold from experience is inside you. Mainly you think about it, you feel it. It's not like an object that's outside you that you can experience holding. What experience is, is fleeting but at the same time it can last forever.”

I first discovered DAIPANbutoh in 2017 when I met Sheri Brown. She invited me to perform my one-woman show The Right Shoes at a butoh event she was producing.  Butoh immediately hooked me. I had always been a lover of dance. Before the pandemic I spent as much time as I could dancing at clubs. People often complimented me on my moves. But for me, dance has always been about the mind, body, spirit connection. There’s a certain level of freedom and contentment I experience when I dance. And I’ve always wondered how much of dance’s power we’re not tapping into. Could dance, if fully cultivated, heal wounds, reverse disease, and help the dancer transmute trauma? Some writers have explored the idea. In the television show, The OA, the main character has five dance moves that can transport someone to another dimension and even reverse death. [Trigger warning: The OA delves into dark adult themes: kidnapping, torture, rape, and a school shooting.] So, I asked DAIPANbutoh members about their thoughts on the true power of dance.

“Butoh enabled me to get into my body,” Sheri Brown said. Brown grew up in a conservative community where she experienced body shaming that she still struggles to overcome today. She was also the victim of sexual violence.

“Like many women, I experienced rape,” Brown said. “And I did not really address that until maybe the last five years when I did a butoh-inspired piece where my friend suggested that I would trade places with that person, with that boy. She played me, and we processed it in a safe way. And it was kind of comedic but horrible at the same time. When that happened to me and I had no voice, it was a huge impact on me that I wasn't able to — I did say no — but I wasn't able to yell no. Or, I didn't know how to.”

Dhyana Garcia has also developed a more meaningful connection to her own body through butoh.  She was raised Catholic and had not explored the naked body or the eroticism of the body.

“I started to kind of realize all the taboos that we have as a society of like not wanting to look at our bodies without clothing or not loving our bodies just the way they are,” Garcia said. “It was something I didn’t want to explore because I didn’t need to; but unconsciously I didn’t want to go there because it was a taboo.”

There are many taboos in our society that prevent us from considering the full possibilities of the human experience. If we had allowed taboo to fully shape our explorations of the possible, we would not have developed air travel, space travel or life-saving antibiotics.

There was a time when certain mathematical calculations were considered impossible, Sheri Brown said. Brown, who is a math teacher when she’s not dancing, imagines that one day it might be possible to do things with dance that today we would consider beyond the realm of possibility.

“What if we combine this straightforward math and science with dance and movement in the technology of the body and intuition,” Brown said. “Maybe you can find like a doorway into some kind of a wormhole. Or, maybe you could have a function: Like something goes into a mathematical equation, you do something, and a different thing comes out. So, what goes into your body technology, that could come out, and it could be like the kingdom of heaven.”

DAIPANbutoh Collective will perform Wandering & Wondering at Kubota Garden on July 24, 2022, Noon to 3:00 pm.

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