Insects inspire butoh master Maro

by Rieko Suzuki

Special To The Japan Times

“I think if you looked at Earth from space, you’d see that the ones who really hold the reins here are not humans, but insects,” Akaji Maro, a master of the expressionist Japanese dance genre butoh, declared in a recent interview for The Japan Times.

Now aged 71, Maro — who still leads the Dairakudakan troupe he founded in 1972 with the aim of fusing butoh and theater — is totally enamored of insects, looking up to them as teachers and deriving endless pleasure from observing their modes of life.

Asked why, he responds: “There’s a line from a poem that goes: ‘Flies rub their hands together, and their legs, too.’ That makes me think they could be praying to or for something, even though we’re told they are actually just cleaning themselves. But anyhow, that action has been going on longer than us. They are our elders.”

So it’s hardly surprising that Maro’s latest work “Mushi no Hoshi” (“Planet of Insects”), which just opened in Tokyo, is a kind of picture scroll of life based on his studies of these animals.

This marks a shift from his many previous pieces based on themes such as the origin of man and ancient legends — a shift he’s made because he’s captivated by insects’ “wisdom to live for 400 million years” (since their fossil record begins).

“In contrast, the wisdom of man is idiotic,” he observed. “We’ve abandoned our own evolution, developed atomic energy and changed our environment — so we’re now wringing our own necks.

“If you look at insects, they’ve always changed to compromise with their surroundings, like when food supplies are low and they make their bodies smaller. So I want to approach this work from the perspective of this secret of theirs; of a creature that changes its own body.”

On the poster for the show, there is a warning to humanity written by Maro from the standpoint of outer space. It reads: “We have decided to give up on you. Soon we won’t take an interest in your survival. You’re in danger!” The bluntness of that message owes a lot to the artist’s discomfort with Japanese society since the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the ongoing nuclear crisis that followed.

“Since the nuclear accident, everyone carries somewhere inside them a little sense of ‘we’re in trouble’ — yet I feel we’re somehow just moving ahead as usual. Why don’t we turn around and take a look back? It takes energy even to atrophy, but I say, ‘I’m not going to follow in line and simply carry on!’

“That’s usually when my dance goes into a supernatural realm. But these days, the spirit world might be a better one anyway.”

The inviters and the invited, the catching and the captured — at a rehearsal space in the Kichijoji district of western Tokyo, more than 20 dancers have been getting together night after night since early May, continuing through trial and error to create a work based on insect life and those animals’ relationship with people.

From evocations of flies and grasshoppers, to an original “kettle bug” that sports a kettle on its head, the creatures that appear are unique and full of vitality. Nonetheless, as Maro pointed out, “It’s not too self-explanatory. It’s enough that you can watch and think, ‘That’s a bug’ — because you’ve got to have a black hole of mystery somewhere, or it’s not interesting.

“Personally, I think it’s good if you can go in a direction where there are so many overlapping meanings that in the end you wind up with a blank slate.”

Launched in 1959 with a work titled “Kinjiki” (“Forbidden Colors”) by Hijikata Tatsumi, butoh (aka ankoku butoh, meaning “dance of darkness”) has ever since been characterized by its performers’ whitened bodies, shaved heads and fragmented movements. After surging in popularity along with Japan’s avant-garde movement in the 1960s, however, it began to evolve into an art form which, by reversing the normal standard of beauty in dance, became an eerie new method of expression that gained an almost holy mystique as it spread around the world.

Within this, Dairakudakan — which means “Great Camel Company” — stands out for the dynamic spectacle it creates as a troupe in addition to the individual presence of each dancer.

“When I’m working on a staging with the troupe, though I regard myself as just another dancer, if I make some movement unconsciously, then the others tend to copy it as if I meant it to be ‘choreography,’ said Maro, who studied under the butoh pioneer, Tatsumi. “But that way I get to see how I’d moved without realizing it, so the others become a kind of mirror of myself and that’s a real plus for me when I’m working with my company.”

Clearly, mysteries lie not just in other worlds, but in our own bodies, and our own consciousness is limitless. That’s why Maro continues to dance and create.

This time, the production will feature several cages for the insects, with an otherworldly soundtrack by the American minimal techno pioneer Jeff Mills along with recordings of fusion musician Keisuke Doi playing instruments such as the flutelike shakuhachi.

With its inner worlds and physical worlds, freedom and restraints, history and future, mismatches and contradictions, Maro’s fantastical “Mushi no Hoshi” looks set to expand and evolve before the audiences’ eyes — just like those insects and nature itself.

“Mushi no Hoshi” runs June 26-29 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. For details, call 0422-21- 4984 or visit www.dairakudakan.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.