Now, it seems, more than ever, do we need art. And while Covid continues its assault on a huge swath of our population, relief came to this reviewer in the form of a live-streamed concert by butoh master Oguri. Bringing laser-like intensity to each and every performance while simultaneously creating portraits of staggering resilience, this supreme mover continues to surprise, stun and satisfy with his dances, whether solo or in conjunction with others.
And so it was with “Fall Leaves,” the 18th edition of the acclaimed series, “Flower of the Season.” Presented annually at the Electric Lodge in Venice, CA by Body Weather Laboratory, a forum for investigating kinesthetic and movement research begun by dancer/farmer and improvisatuer, Min Tanaka, this 45-minute work featured keyboard wizardry by composer Tigran Hamasyan. Somewhat of a family affair, “Leaves” was enhanced by sound engineers Paul Chavez and son Zenji Oguri, with son Keiden Oguri supplying the costume designs, including a ruched white robe/kimono seen at the concert’s start.
Entering the darkened space to organ-like sounds as if it were sacred—and in this case, it certainly was—Oguri, bathed in pristine red lighting designed by sister-in-law Morleigh Steinberg, a frequent collaborator who also operated the camera with Keiden, spread his arms, a supplication, perhaps, to remake the world, before bending and balancing on one foot. Soon crouched over, Oguri initiated a series of signature glacial moves, ruminating, one could imagine, on the concept of the body.
Hamasyan, a piano virtuoso who fuses jazz improvisation with the folk music of his native Armenia, then turned to the acoustic piano, the arpeggiated chords now sweet, his deep, droning voice adding another dimension to the soundscape. With overhead camera work providing an exhilarating view of Oguri, he again spread his arms in this prayer for humanity, the shadow creating an ink-blot effect. It’s as if there were a magnetic pull between music and movement, the dancer assuming a variety of stances, his back-bending nothing short of remarkable.
But this was no ordinary backbend: A winged crane one moment, Oguri then began manipulating the kimono, a mass of material that might signify comfort, shielding us from the agonizing forces heaped upon us at this moment. A prelude to writhing on the floor with only his hands visible, here was an insect breaking free from its cocoon. The figure, soon in a partial reveal and clad only in a genital sock, once again became upright, but wearing the white garment backwards.
Talk about sleight-of-body! Belting the robe, the artist activated a series of quick, fractured steps, the camera closing in on his beatific face, with the music, now synthesized, accelerating, as well.
A head-bobbing Oguri with feet turned in, also offered shamanistic dips before he receded into the abyss, with Hamasyan performing solo. When Oguri emerged in a loose-fitting black shirt and pants, a contrast to the whiteness previously displayed, he furthered the notion of a duality coursing through the dance: harmony/discord; resistance/surrender; movement/stasis. Responding to both the music and what might best be described as an unseen divinity, Oguri, in the mere planting of a foot, never fails to captivate.
Bouncing rhythmically to the acoustic piano—here Hamasyan’s soothing playing was reminiscent of early Keith Jarrett—the ageless dancer deployed neo-yoga postures before becoming, in effect, a human mandala. Broadly sweeping his legs and arms in a circular fashion while seated on the stage, this was energy incarnate.
High-pitched whistling sounds atop descending chords then gave impetus for Oguri to cavort freely through space. Drawn to the score, which swelled into a strangely hypnotic kind of scatting, he infused every move with purity and grace, channeling an array of emotions. And when a major key finally arrives, there is relief, a respite, as an animated Oguri takes on the world through the force of his fluttering hands, skittering feet, a mimed laugh.
Even when displaying a wrenchingly grotesque looking visage that seemed to ask, “Why? Why? Why is this happening?” Oguri gave the impression of submitting to a glimmer of hope. And as he again faced front, arms and head raised, this astonishing performer beseeched us all to be alive. The final image, one of utter simplicity in a white light of calm, had Oguri standing erect and bowing to Hamasysan, who returned the gesture before the duo took their bows together.
Teeming with filigreed fingers that matched filigreed notes, “Leaves,” proved an intoxicating journey and perfect pairing of musician and dancer, with Oguri, whether in silent scream mode or proffering a twisting, twitching torso, became a pipeline to god.