Electric Lodge, Venice, California, July 30-31, 2022
While books are being banned and burned in the States, and the political climate continues to roil, one can take solace in art. Especially the art of Butoh master and Los Angeles treasure, Japanese rice-farmer-turned-dancer Oguri, who’s been making dances in Southern California since 1990. And what dances they are: From site-specific work that has included the phenom exploring the connection between humans and the Getty Center’s architectural environment, to his ongoing series, “Flower of the Season,” in which he tackles subjects as diverse as Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, to “Caddy! Caddy! Caddy!” inspired by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Now in its 19th iteration, the series, produced by Oguri and his wife Roxanne Steinberg, is a byproduct of Body Weather Laboratory, workshops that foster alliances among dancers, musicians, artists and writers. In a return to live performance at the Electric Lodge (call this writer grateful!), Oguri was joined by longtime collaborator, Spain-based Andrés Corchero, in “Body as Evidence.”
A staggeringly provocative and brilliant homage to American sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury and his 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, in which firemen burn books rather than extinguish fires, the hour-long performance proved a roadmap of wildly fluctuating emotions. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Bradbury wrote the tome in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library on a typewriter that he rented for the whopping sum of ten cents per half hour, completing the story in nine days.)
Equally astonishing was the work’s opening. Indeed, the deceptively simple set—two piles of books (designed by the dancers and Keiden Oguri, the couple’s son)—soon revealed Oguri as he slowly wriggled out from one of the hollow, as it happened, stacks. Much like a larva morphing into a butterfly, Oguri, inching along at a snail’s pace, then dragged the bookless spines by his ankles, son Zenji Oguri’s New Agey score droning on in a potently ideal way.
Gradually progressing from supine to all fours before assuming a standing position and looking as if he were lugging the weight of the world, Oguri was soon sporting the prop like a pharaoh’s headdress, his shaved head and nearly nude body glistening.
At this point, with the tolling of an unknown bell serving as sonic backdrop, Oguri deployed one-leg balancing poses, as well as his signature head-bobbings, before making a lurching exit, the dancer’s outstretched arms reaching skyward.
Meanwhile, stirrings emanated from the second literary-inclined heap and—voilà—Corchero, sporting a white shirt, black slacks and sports jacket—sprang to glorious life, with Carol McDowell’s and Corchero’s lighting providing an added element of mystery.
Here were books as costumes, books as accessories, books as, well, books, with Oguri, now also clad in office attire, re-entering the space, bringing with him . . . more books, which the duo then began stacking in neat piles. The pair, now in cavorting mode, offered unison bends, swanning arms and a partner dance that veered between the comical (think the Abbott and Costello of Butoh), and the deeply moving.
Who are these creatures, these otherworldly beings dancing with, in a sense, words, to a musical score that grew increasingly rhythmic, its occasional pianistic jazz riffs abetting the duo’s jubilant prancing?
They are, of course, all of us—or not. Then again, they are also the chosen ones, those chosen to be caretakers of language, the language of the body, a hail of books soon raining down from the rafters and held aloft by strings, with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit front and center, and Oguri, now in stasis, the so-called keeper of this red-hot flame.
But before long the duo was lighting and extinguishing candles in this absurdist/fascinating “pas de livre” (step with books), also engaging in head bumps and a mimetic scene reminiscent of Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball in their iconic mirror skit.
And why not? After all, who deemed that Butoh, the dance of angst, should be devoid of humor? Certainly not Oguri and Corchero, where fluid physicality ruled, their mock karate moves and re-arrangement of tomes, with titles including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code some Stephen King and Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, clearly on view, along with a rather big dollop of irony.
This playground of hardcovers proved a perfect romping ground, the twosome re-arranging said props into a standing position, creating a veritable maze for the men to skip through and hop over—without, that is, knocking down any of the strategically placed manuscripts. Think about it: The dexterity, the determination and the sheer delirium of this moment was something to behold, with the odd couple skipping and clearly enjoying themselves in what can only be defined as a true bromance, one akin, perhaps to the celluloid couple, Astaire and Rogers.
Our boys then began speaking soliloquies in their native tongues, most of which was hard to discern, though their hushed tones could have been a harbinger—but of what? Danger? Desire? Dread?
No matter, as these old souls’ pursuit of purity—“junsui”—was stunning and clear, pitch perfect, in fact, and one that allowed them to create an indelible composition of body music, a body sonata, if you will. And with their bodies as evidence and our bodies as viewers/witnesses, it seemed possible that we could, all of us—and with art as the powerful liberator—succeed in getting through these fraught and perilous times.
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