Transgression in Motion

Copyright © by SuZi, 4/3/12


  Because we humans transverse the topography on our anterior limbs—like birds, but unlike birds, do not fly—our species has a peculiarity of motion dissimilar to our brethren species on this, our planet. This peculiarity of motion has created a hegemonic precept of human superiority as an excuse for brutality toward all other life forms, and a rapaciousness of consumption that has not been a benefit to planetary health. Our peculiarity of motion might have once held the potential of beneficence—our agile hands, shared with other primates and with the clever raccoon, can provide pleasure and substance to ourselves and our other-species companions, and are much touted as a crucial element of human domination—and human history is filled with interspecies partnerships that have, as an end result, human perception of the domestication of other life forms. In the disappearing rural areas of the world, these partnership may still hold some ghostly presence, but in the areas of dense human habitation there are hierarchies among humans themselves which relegate other species to a grim existence and a last-thought. In fact, human rapaciousness is extreme enough to create endangerment for species whose lives would ordinarily be experienced without any human interaction; nonetheless, our virus-like population growth has fall-out of human presence to the far reaches of coal dust in melting polar ice and mutation in deep sea jellyfish.

  Because of our peculiarity of motion, an observer foreign to modern times somehow might have the notion that humans celebrate this distinctiveness with constant expression, but this is not the case. In truth, many humans barely move, and whole cultures have grown to celebrate the sections of human population that do move with specialized movements, rituals, and places of movement; this is how we have gym rats, club dancers, bicyclists, and various athletic endeavors. There are also humans who barely move at all, and whole cultures have grown around these groups as well; this is how we have media focus on obesity, the effects of media-influenced inactivity, and the strange ritual of watching some humans perform ritualized movements while the witnesses are not only sedentary, but consuming food—and often enough are not even present at the actual event of movement, but are witnessing the event at a far remove via media (which does not prevent  the witness form much verbal ejaculation).

  Because of our peculiarity of motion, we may or may not understand the motions of our planetary brethren as being both a means of travel as well as a means of language.  For this reason, the hegemonic brutality towards other species gains further gravitas when a group of schoolchildren and their hovering parents feel threatened by an alligator returning to an ancestral home in breeding season. For this reason, the betrayal of horse slaughter is seen as allowable, the extinction of species disinclined to domestication is seen as justifiable, and even the living value of species not in direct human contact is seen as a topic of debate.

  Because of our peculiarity of motion, some humans have created a culture of motion as an art form, as an expression of movement for its own sake, and having nothing to do with teams, food, yelling, a room of auxiliary products and garments boasting logos with  romantic and patriotic fervor. In our current culture of inactivity, the art of movement has the aura of a cult, and only the cache of status keeps certain of these forms—some ballet companies, civic theatre groups—in existence. Separate attention must be paid to the ritualized movements of procreation, for all species have their mating dance and humans are no exception; for this we have a generic type of dance seen in clubs and via media, but the elevation of this type of movement to an art form would also imply the act of procreation—the general implied outcome of these dances—to also be an art form and that would make live sex shows a form of art, if philosophical consistency is to be maintained.

  Because dance, among many art forms these days, is appreciated by so few, comparatively, it seems hopeless for the form to be further divided into specifics of genre, but specific genres of dance do exist. Each of these genres has a distinct artistic intention—as do genres in all art mediums—and it seems likely that witnesses to each dance performance (the audience) would choose the genre to which they feel the strongest sense of personal echo. In truth, cultural status is often at play, as is the case in most art forms, and audiences may choose a dance performance because of perceived social benefit rather than any desire for personal interaction with the art itself. This creates a difficult situation for art forms which seek to create direct, personal experience with witnesses—seen en mass, but experienced individually. Such an art form is thus then Butoh.

  In a telephone interview, Butoh dancer Vanessa Skantze described the genre as being a communicative expression not through  the way one might  mime an action to communicate it, but as how the action feels internally: “In Butoh, the body is being danced. It’s not the same thing as a direct expression; it’s not going to have a gesture that I’ve syntactically created, it’s more of a response—it borders on the ritual and shamanic. The audience partakes of that. The idea is to create a realm for everyone to experience the energies moving through and the alchemy between.[…] There’s a definite connection I’ve referred to as willed possession. It’s absolutely not a trance-dance situation. There’s specific choreography”. Certainly, Butoh dance, as Skantze describes it would be as foreign a consideration to the urban-minded inactives as that of the affection of foxes.

  Skantze termed our modern culture’s retreat from inter-species appreciation as a “disconnect from life”. She refers to the engagement of one’s self in motion as being “present and engaged […] you’re not in your mental pattern of fear or lack or want.”  Skantze’s testimonial to the personal benefits of motion, of Butoh specifically, are reminiscent of a host of anti-anxiety philosophies, except that Butoh does not require an array of possessions, nor a host of snake-oil therapies: “ I want to experience and connect to life. Working with the body keeps me in curiosity and wonder and trust”. Obviously, the dullard couch potato is far from this experience, but no mild psychotropic pharmaceutical will ever approximate the literal engagement and whole-hearted health Skantze seems to emanate without the glosses of being superficial or even cheerful. Hers is a dedicated pursuit of study that unites both mind and body, and which she readily displays via frequent live performances, some of which are viewable, ironically, on youtube or via her Face Book site.

  Whereas fame does partner with some dancers, Skantze is fully aware of the specialized nature of Butoh, but dismisses the attention to the form : “There’s definitely been visibility. [I make mention of a fashion ad, Skantze of an album cover] Certainly  there are people who have appropriated it [butoh], though frankly now I think things are too tepid, too watered down. Pernicious people practicing this form have become more tepid in their approach because they want to make it palatable. A lot has to do with the money game. This is a radical fucking dance.”  

   Skantze is unabashed in her awareness of the mediocrity of current art, no matter the medium: “What I see now is this absolute reluctance to be controversial or radical. On the smaller scale, people are so frightened and so broke that they’re scaling back”. Given that Skantze makes her home, and performs her work on the northwest coast—Seattle—her charges of neo-conservatism for an area generally given the cache of progressive thinking causes speculative pause.  Skantze discusses her forging against this political climate as having “certainly willingness to do challenging work, to challenge an audience”, but also discusses coping with the effrontery of this climate: “ I applied to do a solo performance, the impossibility of crows” and I did the first two shows and I proposed this piece. I was told that people don’t want to see a butoh piece that’s more than 15-20 minutes long[..] what the fuck is wrong with the world that I can’t do a 45 minute piece. All butoh here is 20 minutes, a half an hour. The audience can’t take a long piece.[…] The places where boundaries are pushed and should be pushed are capitulating[…] People want the burlesque and the circus. You have to be confronted by something some time”. Skantze’s dedication to butoh spans a decade, first performing in New Orleans before moving to the Northwest Coast; her performance career extends  years before that to include spoken word with Lydia Lunch, and with musicians Rob Cambre and Donald Miller as a team called Death Posture. Butoh itself, according to Skantze, was the result of a performance by Hijikata Tatsumi called “Forbidden Colors”, and was influenced by “transgressive literature” such as Genet and Artaud.

  To be transgressive is have a commitment that is not dictated by fashion. Certainly, although butoh has seen some visibility, it is not fashionable, but this is hardly a deterrent to Skantze, who seems to embrace the discipline as a term for the genre and for its literal meaning :” It is essential to hone the ability to focus and be completely present and open and that presence is integral. You are creating an environment in which movement is born and you are sculpting with the energy of that to create dance”.  Although Skantze describes this process as ‘a lot of fun” and likens  the process to “the becoming of children and the making of belief”, she also states that “ There’s a whole realm and that takes a particular focus that is very challenging and completely from a space of visceral presence or it doesn’t have authenticity.” Certainly the search for the genuine is not the realm of dance alone, but too few in any genre, too few in any medium, too few humans over all have any commitment this type of credibility.

  Given the obsession and protection of our over-reaching modern life styles, Skantze believes butoh has something to offer its witnesses, whether or not they are other artists in other realms, that of “being present”; she states that “ you can’t change your reality [by staying in] a fantasy world, you can change by acceptance of the real situation that one is in, of the body and of reality and be moving[…]to be present is eminently practical. The dedication and the rigor is what saves them from the incredible hardship of their lives. La-la land is more of a condemnation of their own lives. Be here now or you’re never valuing yourself. To me, the pragmatic and the spiritual are on that point.” In a culture of endless consumption and callous justification, Skantze’s point will not win happy faces from those who shill serenity workshops; nonetheless, her decades of determination without the glitz of far flung accolade for the purpose if living in actualization is a point useable by any one of us.

  Hardly interested in guru status, Vanessa Skantze has a purity of purpose in her art that may frighten some, inspire others, but clearly castigate the lazy; she seeks :” to cross a limit with everything I do. I am seeking to cross a limit from the raw physical practices to creatures and things that border on the unbearable for me to foster a connection, and open up areas of connection and empathy”. Ah, empathy—that nearly culturally antiquated emotion that we are not alienated individuals whose only concern need be our immediate gratifications; ah, empathy—that notion that the skin cream we use is worth deforestation and the suffocation of some one else’s children; ah, empathy—that emotion which allows us to read fiction with swept-away absorption, to listen to music by dead composers, to appreciate cultures not our own, life forms not our own, to take with modesty, to be simple in our needs, to care with authenticity. Vanessa Skantze may dance in a genre foreign to our senses, but really not to our witnessing selves, lest ours be rotted cores and our lives twitching purification. Skantze’s art is one of authenticity, of the movement that distinguishes us—we the peculiar species we are—and we would do well for ourselves, each, to remember and to return to this simple , yet censored, message.


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