They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
â€œButoh challenges the idea of beauty,â€ their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masksâ€”the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatreâ€”and butoh walksâ€”the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.
Theatre students at a butoh workshop, Bangkok.
The art form makes me uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call â€œChingâ€ in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell him which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, â€œThis is the one I like.â€
Manop makes the fabric dance, Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.
He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. â€œLook at this one,â€ he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. â€œItâ€™s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.â€ The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, â€œThis one I can mold into whatever shape I want.â€ He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, â€œDance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.â€
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. â€œIf I go through the motions of a
A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.
dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. Butâ€”â€œ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, â€œâ€”if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
â€œI can tell you something, and you donâ€™t have to know any thing about dance, but youâ€™ll understand.â€
See Khun Manop and Patravadi dancers at the Fringe Festival 2011, held both in Hua Hin and Bangkok from January 29th to March 17th, 2011. Tickets range from 300 Baht for students to 800 Baht for adults.
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