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Written on the Body

There may not be a direct correlation between bibliophiles and lovers of Butoh— the Japanese modern dance form created as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima that is sometimes referred to as the Dance of Darkness—but it’s safe to say that there never has been—nor will there ever be—a bookworm, literally, quite like Oguri.

Indeed, this paragon of Butoh, who’s been making dances in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles for more than three decades, began his latest collaborative opus—with Andrés Corchero—“Body as Evidence, Phase II,” unseen and under a pile of books. Then, in a momentous reveal, he emerged—nearly nude—looking nothing less than a literal bookworm, a trail of tomes running the length of his physique as he slinked and stalked the stage. Here was a caterpillar-like pharaoh of sorts, a twenty-first-century very learned homo erectus, if you will.

Performance

Oguri and Andrés Corchero: “Body as Evidence, Phase II” 

Place

Electric Lodge, Venice, California, March 29-31,, 2024

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Oguri and Andrés Corchero in “Body as Evidence, Phase II.” Photograph by Denise Leitner

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Welcome, then, to the wondrous and wild world of Oguri, with this work the 21st iteration of the ongoing series, “Flower of the Season.” Seen over the weekend at the black box theater of the Electric Lodge, the performances were produced by Oguri and his wife Roxanne Steinberg, with the Lodge also home to the couple’s Body Weather Laboratory, workshops that foster alliances among dancers, musicians, artists and writers. 

And in another stellar pairing with longtime collaborator, Spain-based Corchero (they met some 35 years ago), this concert was again inspired by Ray Bradbury’s famed novel, Fahrenheit 451, with their initial, book-based concert performed in July, 2022. 

Here, then, was a deeper dive into the dystopian tale of firemen burning books rather than extinguishing fires. With the issue, unfortunately, seemingly growing more relevant with each passing day—ugh!—it was nothing short of nirvana to behold Oguri emerge from his cocoon of hardcovers (set design by Oguri, Corchero and Steinberg and Oguri’s son Keiden Oguri): On fine display were the dancer’s legs, calves, shins and thighs—bouquets of taut muscles—as he deployed moves that also included one-legged pogoing here, a little cha-cha-ing there. 

Bathed in amber light (designed by Corchero; operated by Keiden), and occasionally rising on his toes, Oguri moved in fits and starts to an über rhythmic soundtrack by Zenji, the other Oguri/Steinberg son, with the soundscape now featuring wind chimes, a train in motion and yes, even a typewriter. This was a decided nod to Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library on a rented typewriter at a cost of ten cents per half hour, finishing the classic in a mere nine days. 

Oguri and Andrés Corchero's “Body as Evidence, Phase II.” Photograph by Denise Leitner

In an aside, that clever bit of the score recalled, for this reviewer, Erik Satie’s composition for the 1917 ballet, “Parade.” Choreographed by Léonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the dance was set to a soundtrack of typewriters and other assorted clangy things, and while Zenji’s accompaniment was not as, shall we say, rollicking, it was perfect for this homage to the written word.

But before Oguri made his inevitable exit, the book-brandishing dancer created a tableau whereby he was leaning back and dangling strings of books from his wrists, resembling, in effect, a kind of literary sculpture, recalling, perhaps, the work of Niki De Saint Phalle, an unforgettable image that teetered between the absurd and the profound. 

So, with Oguri offstage, there was the matter of another pile of hardcovers (all books were donated by Friends of Venice Library), which soon became animated, giving new meaning to the phrase, “from the page to the stage.” 

In other words: “Hello, Corchero!” 

Emerging from under this garden of literature, revealing one bare foot, flexed, then the other, the Spaniard, clad in purple and green work-out pants, and a beige, long-sleeved shirt with piping (costumes by Keiden), was robotic in his initial moves, a quasi-quizzical look on his face. 

With a plan in mind, though, the task-oriented Corchero then began methodically stacking the books in piles, as if he were a gatekeeper of knowledge. Before long, Oguri—now similarly clad, i.e., clothed—entered, the pair performing what could only be called, “Dances with Books.” 

What followed were acts of sheer agility, endurance and a certain amount of hilarity: Balancing books on their necks—yes, necks!—the duo was not a pair of bookends, but a pair of bookheads

Oguri and Andrés Corchero in “Body as Evidence, Phase II.” Photograph by Denise Leitner

This was imagination unleashed, as the terpsichores both confronted and comforted each other, whether moving around the stacks with speed and gusto, or seated between them. The book-burning metaphor was realized when several of the tomes, having been suspended on strings, dropped down from the ceiling, with the performers lighting, extinguishing, and re-igniting candles inches away from the props. 

The duo’s synergy was palpable, with puppet-like moves accentuating their physical differences but also attesting to their camaraderie: At one point they were holding on to each other with outstretched arms, their intentions pure, their dedication to their art more so. Here, then, is a post-postmodern Fred and Ginger: in synch, but sans shoes.

This was especially apparent when they created a maze of upright hardcovers, then romped through the literary Stonehenge as if Olympians, their dexterity and determination on view with each hop, skip and jump. The segment then gave way to a “So You Think You Can Butoh”-like scene, where jazz elements in the score allowed for letting loose and getting down, with words like loping, gamboling and frolicking coming to mind.

Soon speaking in near-indecipherable soliloquies in their native tongues, as they did in Phase I of this epic, the twosome, who will take the work to Barcelona’s Grec Festival in July, were, nevertheless, on the same page: With their bodies as evidence, they are possibility personified, bringing to mind once again, the last words of The Unnamable, from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel: “…you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

And with the sad news of Ushio Amagastu’s recent passing (he founded the acclaimed Butoh troupe, Sankai Juku, in 1975), we can take heart in knowing that Oguri and Corchero will, with their extraordinary vision and deep commitment to performance, also go on, and, at the same time, take many of us with them.

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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