- Butoh Medea
The New York Premier of Butoh Medea: Spanning Cultures, Media, and Ages
When a work of art—a play by Shakespeare, for example—is translated into another medium and that medium itself comes from a different culture, there is a double potential for profit or loss. Does the translation offer a perspective on the original, confirming or even bringing to the surface what we sense in the original work? Conversely, does the new media draw too much attention to itself, subordinating or even subverting the original work? The phrase "as inspired by" can be a sign of respect or an unconscious admission of guilt.
When Euripedes' play Medea was translated into Butoh, the wordless Japanese "dance of darkness" that grew out of the suffering from Hiroshima, both the artists involved and their audiences clearly profited. Starring the exquisite actor/dancer Yokko, who adapted and choreographed the show (written and further adapted by Sean Michael Welch), and directed by Brian Rhinehart, Butoh Medea had its world premiere in 2014 at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York at Theatre Row. It was later staged around the world—Edinburgh, Scotland, Turin, Italy, Izmir, Turkey, Warsaw, Poland, as well as around the United States. It won awards at the United Solo Festival for choreography, costume and lighting design, and was named "The Best One-Woman Show."
A response to the pain and suffering not only of Hiroshima but of subsequent events, Butoh has what Jeff Goldberg calls "aesthetics that are sometimes so distorted and strange," with the performers moving "awkwardly and slowly with shuffling steps"—like zombies. Margarett Loke notes that Butoh has "aesthetic features that go against the western archetypes of perfection and beauty." It deals with taboo topics like "death, eroticism, and sex," and the dance is often set in extreme or absurd environments, characterized by slow, hyper-controlled motion, almost nude bodies, up-rolled eyes with contorted faces, inward rotated legs and feet, fetal positions, and playful or grotesque imagery.
Dancer Yokko and Director Rhinehart transform into the medium of Butoh the story of Medea, a barbarian princess who marries Jason, a man who in turn abandons her to marry the Glauce, Creon's daughter. In revenge, Medea murders the children she had with Jason as well as his new wife. For Yokko, the important thing was not what Medea did but what made her do it. For her, Medea's actions were not premeditated, and so Yokko's concern was to make her human—quite against the traditional image of Medea as a woman scorned, a lost soul who commits infanticide.
Yokko focused on Medea's inner struggles, and hence her aim was to translate Euripides' text ("an inspiration," in her words) into physical movements ranging from dance to the manipulation of her body, bringing to the surface without words what her character is feeling. For her, Medea's obscene act is inseparable from her grief, her love of Jason that is itself distorted by how he cruelly devalues her, and—yes—her love and compassion for her children. Yokko tells of a special moment in rehearsal when her director put his face close to hers and said, "YOU GOTTA LOVE YOUR CHILDREN" with tears in his eyes. Harold Pinter speaks of subtext as the "weasel under the cocktail cabinet," an unseen creature there who nevertheless affects how the actor, pulling a bottle out of that cabinet, delivers his or her lines. In this light, Yokko brought that weasel to the surface—physically and graphically.
Sound effects, designed by Yokko, complemented this physical subtext. As she defines it in her notes, the two major contrastive sound elements were fire and water—fire representing masculine "passion, will" and water, women's "emotion and creativity." Together, they created "the atmosphere for the audience to experience the mind of Medea." There were other contrastive sounds, such as those for the island where she was born and the city where she now lives in "a cell, prison-like."
Sound could suggest dialogue: At one point, the sound of rain transforms "into buzzing human sounds of women, blaming Medea," the buzzing "dialogue" then replaced by "sharp uncomfortable sounds...