Say That

Last night Lena invited me to join her and Peter at the Cultural Center to see the Art. Site Unseen was the name of the installation (can you call it that if itís only up for a single night?) and basically the city of Chicago just gave the entire building over to crazy modern dance folk. I can't find the official site any more, so I just scanned in my program with the various artists' statements: <PDF>.

So what did I see? I saw crazy shit. The primary piece that I went to see, called ďSay ThatĒ was a butoh piece by Crystal Sabbagh "inspired by the stereotypes of women and their lasting effects on society".

In the center of the space were five women. When they entered, they were each wearing beautiful bridal gowns and veils, with whiteface under the veil. An overhead projector, pointed at the wall behind us, display phrases or pairs of phrases. These were changed periodically by one of two people associated with the show. I entered (15 minutes late) to "Erotic" and "Chocolate".

The piece in general was Butoh, which is to say passionate, non-narrative, and really weird. It was also quite wonderful. By the time I got there two of them were in their underwear, and one was vomiting up a ball of red string. Things became more bizarre quickly.

Say That was part of a huge site-specific piece that involved a lot of different modern performance through the building, so although a lot of people were fairly sophisticated there were also a lot of mundanes. In general they were bemused by the piece, but fairly accepting of it. Even the simulated oral sex didnít drive people out, although the presence of a skirt prevented it from becoming too shocking. A whole bunch of people cleared out when one dancer began masturbating herself with another dancer's hand, however.

The piece seemed extremely sexual, and there were certainly a lot of scenes that pushed boundaries in that area. There was also a lot of near-nudity, though, and in America that always reads as sexual even when it clearly isnít. This is not to say that it felt sexual--one moment in particular, with "Savage" projected on the wall, felt powerful and angry but not sexy--but I think Americans (myself included) automatically classify "woman in underwear" as "women being sexual" regardless of the context.

The costumes were beautiful, and I wish Kate could have seen them. As in the previous piece that I saw at the Cultural Center (and I'm not sure whether this is common to butoh in general) the costumes were anything but static, being constantly rearranged and reworked into a variety of fascinating configurations. Sometimes the veils where veils, other times they were scarves or skirts or leashes. One time a bridal gown was draped over a dancer's shoulders like a royal robe.

There were two other dance pieces that I really enjoyed. One was in the large center room on the second floor, the Rotunda. This room has a huge, intricately inlaid domed ceiling. In this setting, dancers performed another very physical, very modern piece called "What Kind of Sky Do You Like?" There were weird noises and a lot of rolling around on the floor, and it was well choreographed for the space. There was one notable section in which everyone was rolling across the floor on those wheeled platforms that car mechanics use, and another in which two people danced in the center, while everyone else stood around the edges harmonizing and filling the space with unearthly tones...

What I liked best about the piece, though, was that there was another piece in the large room behind it. There was no way to get to this room with walking right through the "Sky" piece, in which a bunch of very strange folk were doing weird things. One of the curators was there to authorize this transgression of the performance space, telling people to go around the edge of the room, but it was clear that it was a real boundary for a lot of people. For a lot of reasons, many people did not want to cross that space.

In the far room, having braved the dancers, I saw my favorite piece. Not many had followed me in but there was a large crowd already there watching the performer. The room was very dimly lit, with a spotlight on this orator on a small platform. He was making an impassioned speech to the crowd, with wild hand gestures--and absolutely no noise whatsoever.

At this point I looked again and realized that I was almost the only one there--the rest were all puppets! Creeped me right the hell out, I can tell you.

The puppets were each attached to the waist of a puppeteer, with empty suit pants hanging down under a business blazer and a foam head. The puppeteer controlled the arms by two long dowels. These puppet were all very engaged in the impassioned "speech", waving their arms, pumping their fists and making "Right on!" motions--all also in dead silence, of course.