Stage

Butoh flowers of life and decay

Swedish butoh dancer Su-En celebrates the birth of Linnaeus

by Gilles Kennedy

There is a muscular eloquence to Junichi Kakizaki’s constructions. He describes himself as a floral artist — not an ikebana (flower arrangement) master — and has won awards for his interpretation of the traditional Japanese art form. He considers his works to be contemporary art — either installations or performances.

In the dance production “New Life,” a stunning vision of decay created in collaboration with female Swedish butoh dancer Su-En, Kakizaki builds a nest of branches around the performer. He thrusts violently colored stalks into twigs, strews petals over the stage, forcefully fills the air with flower heads as Su-En rises, and weaves a new landscape on the landscape of her body.

“New Life” was commissioned by the city of Uppsala in Sweden to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of its favorite son, the scientist Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ botanical language was used as a code for human sexual behavior, with stamens and pistils described as brides and grooms, and Kakizaki works with the sensuality of his withering flowers; fleshy lilies, maiden marigolds, their seeds and sexual parts worked into the dancer’s hair in a savage fruitfulness and dry, flimsy rot. Delicacy plays against strength, decay against a relentless sense of potential life.

This homage to the work of the great botanist encompasses “part of the tradition of the beauty of death,” says Su-En, who holds a teaching license at the Yoh Izumo school of Jiuta-mai classical Japanese dance.

The dance production was premiered in Uppsala on the birthday of Linnaeus in May, during a visit by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. Choreographed and performed by Su-En, “New Life” featured not only scene design by Kakizaki but also performances by scores of senior citizens, children, opera singers and the Uppsala Chamber Soloists, as well as a parade of animals and Gunnar Jinmei Linder playing the shakuhachi (bamboo flute). Such a large cast required a specially constructed stadium that seated 1,000 — perhaps the first ever performance of “stadium butoh.”

Su-En (born Susanna Akerlund) and Kakizaki bring a version of the work to Japan this month, the first stop on an international tour. The two first collaborated on the piece “Fragrant” in 2005 for Su-En’s eponymous butoh company, a group of five dancers who live in a converted schoolhouse in Almunge, Sweden.

The use of flowers for the performance is an unusual choice for the dancer, as she has preferred backdrops such as scrap metal or fish guts, or dance films on the short lives of caged chickens. At first sight, it seems almost too pretty for someone who sometimes wields fish knives in her performances.

“I wasn’t attracted by the conventional beauty of the flowers when Kakizaki and I first began working together,” says the dancer, who trained with the legendary teacher Yoko Ashikawa and with the troupe Tomoe Shizune & Hakutobo. “Really, it’s not all about pretty colors — the fragrance of some lilies is strong enough to kill. Flowers trick insects to come and ensure their survival. There is no compromise in the invitation or the color.”

Stains from scattered flower petals show on her white tabi socks on stage, just as it appears to the audience that the colors as well as the fragrances of the flowers permeate her flesh. Su-En respects Kakizaki’s unwillingness to compromise in his depictions of nature in the construction of “New Life.”

“He sees the lack of symmetry in nature, he sees its true possibilities,” she says. “This is very much like the butoh dancer’s constant struggle to achieve asymmetrical qualities. . . . The butoh body is trained to sense something interesting, and then to express it.”

Flower as flesh, and flesh as flower: “New Life” is a delicate attack on the senses, a kind of synesthesia, where one sense “interprets” the other. Kakizaki places dark purple flowers in Su-En’s feet and the sight evokes the taste of dark chocolate; as the smell of budding roses overwhelms the front row of spectators, the mind drags up images of old country houses. The dancer charts spiraling circles, as twitching muscles in her hand suggest that she is climbing thorny trellises.

Before Linnaeus’ birth on May 1, 1753, the names of plants were scientifically uncharted. The famous Swedish botanist sorted it all out; “New Life” mixes it all up again.

“New Life” shows on Sept. 21 at the Swedish Embassy in Roppongi, Tokyo (the free performance includes a talk by the artists and a video presentation of the original; to reserve a seat call [03] 5562-5066 or e-mail info@sweden.or.jp); Su-En will perform a Jiuta-mai performance by Yoh Izumo at Suijo Ongakudo, the open-air stage at Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park, Tokyo, on Sept. 29, 5 p.m.