A Butoh-pian weekend at High Concept Labs

Just outside the downtown district - in a barren part of Pilsen - walking up to the fourth floor of the under-construction Mana Contemporary art gallery to High Concept Labs, (HCL)’s newish space feels a little like going to a secret party to which few are invited. Indeed, nestled into a very busy weekend of big, feel good dance, Sara Zalek’s Butoh-inspired workshop and performance series featuring NYC-based Vangeline may have escaped notice on your dance card – to your chagrin.

That’s not to say that Zalek’s split bill performance with Eli Halpern and Vangeline was for everyone, but taking a walk on the “wild side” into the intensely uncomfortable world of Butoh is an important experience for every dance patron, if for no other reason than the high degree of detail and physicality that go into Butoh performance, when done well.

Butoh is a post-World War II Japanese form of avant-garde performance, usually incorporating off-color themes and uncouth stories told in white body paint through slow-motion movements and exaggerated facial expressions. It might be said that to have seen one Butoh performance is to have seen them all, and indeed, each of the pieces on the program shared moments of similarity tying them back to the original form. However, resistance toward codification is perhaps Butoh’s greatest virtue, its only requirement being a grotesque attack on traditional notions of aesthetic beauty. Friday and Saturday’s interpretation of the form felt distinctly Western, and contemporary, free to explore updated, relevant themes.

An audience consisting of usual suspects to experimental performance filled HCL’s studio theater as it entered onto Zalek’s Between Worlds. The piece opens with her lying on the ground shrouded in a lattice of tin foil tipped Saran Wrap. She twists a corded rope in her hands for what feels like ten minutes as the audience struggles to get settled into its places. Spoiler alert: her tan-colored underlayment is an inflatable air mattress that cheekily elevates Zalek approximately 16 inches. In the usual fashion, everything happens very slowly, requiring a certain degree of patience from each audience member, but the playful flippancy Zalek brings to her work is refreshing, as is her dedicated performance quality and unabashed ability to look each of us straight in the eyes

Following current LinkUp resident Eli Halpern in strain1, Vangeline’s 40-minute Fifth of Beethoven is a tribute to composer Ludwig van Beethoven and Tatsumi Hijikata, considered the founder of Butoh. In the compelling “Butoh meets Beethoven” solo, Vangeline uses an LED baton to “conduct” the full first movement of Symphony No. 5 with us as her orchestra and an “audience” of smiling pig masks upstage. Vangeline’s ability to stay inside the solo's difficult degree of physicality is unparalleled, with tightened chin and eyes rolled back in her head. It is as though she achieves an alternate plane, to which we are all invited as witnesses.