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Embryotrophic Cavatina, A New Butoh Dance Work by Kokoro Dance

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Bourget, who, along with Jay Hirabayashi co-direct Kokoro Dance. Their show, Embryotrophic Cavatina, promises to be 'provocative and primal'. From their press release:

Embryotrophic Cavatina – born out of “embryotroph”, referencing the embryonic nourishment of placental animals and “cavatina”, a short, simple song without repetition – will be performed by four dynamic artists: Bourget and Hirabayashi, as well as Molly McDermott, featured in the well-received 2017 VIDF premiere Kai Kairos, and Billy Marchenski, a returning Kokoro Dance member who performed in 2015’s Book of Love.

The artists of Embryotrophic Cavatina will tap into the essential part of the self to awaken a deeper, universal connection within themselves and the audience. With full-body commitment, the dancers will launch into a state of corporeal crises prevalent in each gesture, muscle and pore. From such visceral contortions, the dancers will emerge wholly vulnerable, embracing all flaws and frailty to convey the beauty in simply being human.

Illuminating the stunning tableau of dancers as they progress between statuesque posture and undulation, Embryotrophic Cavatina will showcase lighting design by Gerald King. Long-time Kokoro Dance collaborator, designer and artist Tsuneko Kokubo (Koko) will create the dancers’ ethereal costumes, and paintings from her latest exhibition Plant Memory, exploring the connection between immigrant plants and people, will fill the backdrop with dream-like projections.

Barbara and I talked for a while, and I feel we could've gone on all day because her knowledge of art seems endless, and her passion is infectious. Among other things, we talked about the upcoming show, as well as dance in general, and the opportunities Kokoro is offering emerging artists.

V: Before we start, can you tell us a bit about butoh, what it is, and where it came from?

B: Butoh began in 1957 with Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. The destabilizing of their [Japanese] culture after world war two made them question the Western influences moving into their country, so butoh was partly a reaction to that, but also, from my perspective anyway, an evolution of dance in a way that ballet had been 150 years before. What they were doing was looking for an original form for each individual body, so not so much a codified technique which was what ballet had evolved into. Ballet had come from folk dancing, from various parts of Europe, French, Russian, all over. They were looking for a much deeper expression of the individual through movement and they didn’t exactly reject Western dance forms because I think over the course of time they employed some of those ideas within the context of what they were doing.

V: And how did you and Jay begin working with butoh?

B: For us, we discovered butoh by happenstance in 1982. There was this beautiful poster downtown saying there was a performance of butoh at Robson square. We didn’t have anything to do that Saturday night so we thought we’d check it out, and it was life-altering for us in many ways. It was like having, not your head blown off, exactly, but a kind of epiphany, how dance could become this very strong individual expression. We were working with Edam for four years and in 1986 we left the company and we decided that we would investigate this form of dance. We started on the process of looking at pictures, finding teachers, inviting teachers to Vancouver, going to where they were. We did our first butoh performance in 1986 and we’ve been doing for the last- i guess this is our 32nd season - so working in the form for 32 years and we continue to delve deeper into it. It’s very exciting to be working on something that we believe to be unique, certainly to the Vancouver dance scene, but also in the butoh scene. Butoh has spread all over the world and you can find it in Argentina, in Brazil, in Mexico, in all the centres of Europe, in the US, Canada; so it really has opened up the expressive possibilities of the dance art.

V: What is it about butoh that is so universal?

B: I think it’s this return to the body, relieving one’s self of artifice in a way that is really individual but also works in a group context. Everybody is so different in their exploration, but everyone comes together in this form. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline like ballet, this kind of stripping away of all the social norms, of what’s acceptable in terms of dance, and going deeper into your own psyche. And because you do that it reaches out to the greater psyche, you know, to humanity. It’s a very human form. You don’t have to be a virtuoso dancer in the Western dance sense to become a beautiful butoh dancer. It just depends on what your focus is and how you develop.

I’ve been dancing all my life and I’ll be 67 in October. I started in tap and modern dance and all that, but I started, my first professional job was as a ballet dancer. You don’t leave all of that behind you. You bring it with you because the body is the body. All those things remain in the body, so we've brought our own experience into our unique form of butoh. Jay didn’t start dancing until he was in his 30’s. He was a downhill ski racer so he’s got that sensibility in his work as well.

Butoh has a wonderful way of reaching an audience because it’s really about the senses and it’s often slower moving than some Western dance forms, so there’s a lot more time for contemplation. And it has a certain, because the bodies are often nude or semi-nude, there’s a contemplation that happens, I think, for human beings, when you’re watching, because you can imagine your own body. You see the sinews, you see how everything moves and works and there’s an empathy for that.

V: Do you always have to wear white makeup, or is that just a convention?

B: It is somewhat of a convention. When you see butoh you will see the people are painted white although sometimes we don’t do that. Say, if we’re going to do an improvisation performance with a jazz band we won’t get white. It just depends, but we see it as a costume. It moves it to a different plane. If you’re just wearing tights and a leotard, that has a certain kind of connotation, but when you paint yourself white it enhances somehow this notion of the physical body in a really wonderful way. Sometimes we wear costumes, i mean, we’re not always nude, [but] we always have that white essence. Also, it’s really good for lighting, a practical thing! The ability for depth of that kind of meeting of light and body is really strong. Light and shadow acts in a different way.

V: What is the history of the white makeup?

B: What we heard, and we’re not sure if this is true, there’s all sorts of stories, but, Hijikata Tatsumi’s wife was a ballet dancer originally and he was choreographing a dance for her. She didn’t want to be nude so, I think he’d performed nude quite a bit, so he said, okay we will paint you white, then you’re not nude. That’s the story we heard, but stories are stories. It’s kinda nice in the sense that he created a costume for his wife who was too shy just to be bare and then she was fine because the white is a costume. When you put it on you don’t feel nude. It’s an interesting dichotomy. It’s an interesting question: why is it that when you put on paint you don’t feel nude? When we do wreck beach -- I think we’ve done 22 years now of wreck beach every summer -- and we’re naked except we paint ourselves white. Getting the white on is the hardest thing because you strip at the beach and then you feel, “oh this is terrible”, but then you put the makeup on and you feel fine. You feel as one with nature in a way that, i don’t know, it just heightens the awareness.

V: This show has taken a while to create. Why is that?

B: 20 years ago we choreographed the first half of this requiem, and we knew at some point we would do the second half, but you know life has a way of getting in the way of plans and you have to do this and you have to do that. Last November, 2016, we were invited to Cuba to teach a workshop and perform so we thought because we wanted a strong piece that the kids -- they were 24, not kids but young adults -- we wanted to give them a really strong butoh experience, so we thought we’d teach them this 31 minute piece to for the requiem. And it’s so funny how timely it was and how much the audience and guests responded to the movement and the music that we just decided that we would -- this is the year that we’re going to finish. we’re very excited because it’s a challenge. All creativity is a challenge. To make a whole out of something that we have performed on and off for 20 years, I think our ideas are very good and it’s going really well so I’m hoping people will come see it.

V: The way you talk about butoh, it reminds me of contemporary theatre techniques like Viewpoints.

B: It’s a way of focusing and a way of bringing everything instead of thinking about what’s outside you see what’s inside. I think all the arts work that way of course but this is just another methodology. It’s really useful for actors for performance because it really helps to focus your energy and pull, and you find new things all the time with the text. It’s great for voice work because it moves slowly. It doesn’t always but it’s a part of it. Slowly isn’t the right word. Sustained is better.

Dance is a very abstract form like music in that the narrative is the body in dance and really really really connected to the senses. There’s form to it of course and when you choreograph you learn about form and how to move people around. There’s craft and all that stuff but essentially it’s rare to have words that you speak on stage. The narrative is the body and we share that as human beings. I think it’s really -- I’m prejudiced of course -- but i think it’s the most dynamic and beautiful art form because it has this ability: everyone sitting in the theatre can have their own narrative that’s particular to them and that visceral connection is so unique you don’t have to understand ‘abc’. You just feel ‘ab’ and ‘c’ for you, whatever your narrative is. If you say, ‘oh it makes me think of this’ or ‘now i understand this’...

Even just sitting and looking at a painting you’ll have an epiphany and go, ‘I see now. I have to fix that’ or whatever. So i think it’s stimulating and evocative that every single person, if it works, it will mean something to everybody. It doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everybody, although there’s universal tribal metaphors. We all respond to certain things because we’re tribal animals and we have a certain kind of, you know, sitting in a dark theatre with a lot of people they would share some of the feelings. Essentially dance is about the inner life of human beings. It’s not about thought in the same way as theatre.

V: That's what I mean. I think of Viewpoints because it brings a lot from dance, and it helps divorce the performer from the need to tell literal narratives.

B: I did a degree at SFU and I was interested in how to direct actors, interested in how to work that way. We studied Viewpoints and it was really interesting to me because it had a lot of similarities with dance, although it’s not dance. It enhanced my toolbox, if you will, because you have to constantly reinvent your process in order to keep your choreography exciting to yourself, and trying not to say the same things all the time

V: I also read that you're the primary tenant of a large theatre space at the Woodwards building...

B: KW studios, that’s what we're calling it -- it stands for Kokoro Woodwards but it also stands for kilowatt. We’re using the symbol of kw in our logo because it’s energy, it’s all about energy and creating an energized space. We are looking to funders, the city, the province, and the federal government to assist us in helping develop this space, which they have so far. But what we lack now is operating money. You know, money to renovate, but now we need to hire a facility manager because Jay and I can’t -- you know, we just took on a third full time job and we can’t work seven days a week fourteen hours a day forever. So we need to get some help and also we need to get some funding so we can develop a pool of money that will support the people who cannot afford the space. Many groups on the downtown east side, many artistic groups around the city have very little funds, so they need to have some subsidy. That’s what we need to develop it just requires a massive amount of application and administration.

We are open now. We’re having renters. We’re actually rehearsing there now. There’s two studios. One is a production studio in the basement and then there’s a studio on the atrium level. It’s taken a while. We’re open but we’re newbies. We’ve never managed a space before so that’s a steep learning curve but it’s really exciting. What it has is two new spaces for Vancouver artists. It’s not just for us that we did this, because we don’t work 7 days a week, 24 hrs a day. It also has a state-of-the-art recording studio for musicians.

V: And you offer lessons at really affordable prices. Is butoh for everybody?

B: It can be. I teach three classes a week, Jay teaches two. We don’t refuse anybody. If people have a desire to move and to learn then all they have to do is bring themselves and their desire. It doesn’t really matter how much training you have, if you have a lot, or if you have a little. Dance is so universal. We have a couple of students who have developmental delay, and they come and it’s moving to watch them learn.

This past year at Wreck we had a few people who hadn’t danced in years or who hadn’t danced before. It’s cathartic in a way, i mean it’s great to go to the gym and all that, i do that, but to move your body in a way that is more formalized with a whole bunch of people or three others, or whatever the number of students is, it’s really life affirming. There’s something about it, a dance class, you know. Of course I’ve been in, I can’t even count the number of dance classes I’ve taken. It’s sort of where I live so for me it’s -- I couldn’t live without it.

V: Lastly, because we are a bilingual magazine, I wonder if you have a message for the Latino community.

B: We have a daughter in law and 2 grandchildren who are Latino, so we’re family. She’s from Colombia and her family’s here. We’re really happy to reach out. [If you are Latino] You don’t have to worry about language barriers, there’s no talking!


You can buy tickets for Kokoro's new show, Embryotrophic Cavatina, here.

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