As is common in butoh performance, the collaboration between dancer Boaz Barkin and guitarist Kenta Nagai had begun before the audience was let in. The small Hell's Kitchen theater was set up in reverse, with chairs in the stage area and Boaz sitting on the risers, wearing a lazy, drunken smile as two high tones repeated over the PA. As soon as the audience was seated, the house lights went down (with a loud click) and Kenta Nagai took his place on the side of the makeshift stage.
Nagai is a sadly under-recognized guitarist in New York City who generally plays slow overtones, sometimes bowing his fretless solid-body and often experimenting with string instruments from different cultures and traditions. Here he played a 10-string oud, opening by mimicking the slow electronic pulses that began the set, adding a third note, picking up the pace slowly toward
a frenetic strumming and then breaking to play in his more familiar, somber style.
Nagai has worked more in the dance world than within the musical improv community of late, and pairings with butoh dancers are a natural for his style. Butoh is a relatively young form, originating in Japan in the wake of World War II, and as such there is dissension about what it is and isn't; it's most prominent practitioner, Min Tanaka, doesn't even use the term. A few characteristics, however, do seem to define it (although even here there are exceptions). At it's most basic level, butoh tends
to be very slow, to involve extraordinary muscle control, and to revolve around themes of anguish or physical pain. Barkin took a different path, showing more nervous energy than torment and occasionally mugging for the audience with an uncomfortable, forced smile. Where often butoh performances make voyeurs out of the audience, Barkin played the reluctant host. It wasn't until the fourth musical section - a return to electronic tones, this time with ambient noise underneath - that he forgot he was being watched, forgot himself, and succumbed to a tortured life.
Not just his life, but a life, because butoh seems to speak of the pains of existence beyond the individual. Dancers often wear street clothes or robes, generally wrinkled, ill-fitting, misbuttoned or otherwise unkempt. Barkin was dressed in cheap business casual, barefoot, with a thread wrapped tightly around his right hand and forearm. If it's about anything, butoh seems to be about how close any of us might be to going over the edge, to losing the ability to move appropriately
through the world. With a serene expression and backed by a simple eastern melody, Barkin moved to the top of the risers, looked out and bowed. It was an unexpected ending. Indeed, just as they begin, the endings of butoh performances aren't often so clear cut. But perhaps even in such a world of pain, there's no rule against the occasional happy ending.
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