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Meeting of Three Masters

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Koji Motoki, quintessential butoh dancer

Antares is glad to have caught a quintessential one-night event featuring butoh dancer Koji Motoki, jazz blower Kazutoki Umezu, and percussionist Lewis Pragasam, that might well have been called “Zen and the Avant-Garde” 

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Kazutoki Umezu, leader of the well-known Kiki Band

Some of the most awesome phenomena occur in the blink of an eye. Look away for a moment and it’s gone. Like a shooting star or a supernova. Or like the October 24 (2002) butoh+jazz performance staged at MATIC’s mini-auditorium by master of movement Koji Motoki, master of breath Kazutoki Umezu, and Malaysian master of rhythm Lewis Pragasam.

If a friend hadn’t urged me to go – singing the praises of Umezu who records with the jazz-rock outfit, Kiki Band –  I wouldn’t even have known about it and would have missed one of the most inspiring performances I’ve seen in years.

The person responsible for bringing Motoki and Umezu to town was Mr Nishino – a Japanese businessman residing in KL who also happens to be a weekend jazz musician and a keen connoisseur of the performing arts. Nishino had arranged for the duo to perform at an opening in Singapore.  For some reason the deal fell through after Motoki and Umezu had arrived, and so we had the good fortune to have them perform in KL instead. The inclusion of Lewis Pragasam on percussion not only bought in some local color, it effectively added a whole new dimension to the largely spontaneous performance.

In the space of 75 minutes – with only a pumpkin, some carnations in a vase, a table, and a few costume accessories – Koji Motoki succeeded in telling the story of Evolution through the expressive but minimalist medium of butoh.

Illuminated only by flashlight…

The dancer made his entrance completely smeared with white clay and illuminated only by a handheld flashlight. Wearing only a pair of white bikini briefs (I’m sure he would have done it completely starkers in an environment more accepting of nudity) and clutching blobs of clay in his hands, he edged his way to center stage, where he confronts the mystery of life as represented by the carnations in a vase. Bits of dried clay tumble to the floor around him, as though his physical body is still in the process of forming itself.

His face a mask of agony from the pangs of his own birth, he begins to explore the novel sensation of being incarnate (is that why the carnations, as a symbol of the beauty of our own incarnate experience?) The transpersonality of the butoh discipline effaces the ego of the dancer, transforming him into Adam in the Garden, a universal archetype of humanoid being. As his explorations continue, he discovers and cavorts with a large golden pumpkin, symbolic of the feminine principle, or of the planet itself.

He lies on his back on the table, feet in the air, and his toes turn into a tribe of tiny beings. An animated dialogue ensues between both feet.  Duality arises as an illusion, as each foot represents a polarized perspective, such as male versus female, East versus West – only to resolve into a dynamic unity the moment the dancer gets back on his feet and springs catlike into another dramatic metamorphosis.

In butoh, one dances with every muscle of the body, which becomes an object of contemplation: strange, primordial, mysterious, and transcendentally beautiful. Stillness and silence express as much as, if not more than, movement and sound. Comedy and tragedy become inextricably one, and so do audience and performers.There were moments when it seemed as if I were having an out-of-the-body experience, that I was actually a disembodied intelligence observing myself on stage.

Kotoki’s supple body articulately told the 20-billion-year story of Spirit’s journey through time via the Book of Changes that we call the Genetic Code.

He slithered and crawled with reptilian ease, then sprouted wings and took flight. Floating out in a black dress like a burlesque butterfly, he impersonated every seductress known to man. Disappearing into the wings, he would reappear as a little girl or a dwarf, reduced in stature simply by donning a tiny white frock. Another quick change of costume and he would transform into a cosmic waveform or an amphibious, prehistoric creature. Standing on the table with head and hands poking out through an oversized costume, he became a convincing giant, a mighty warrior king.  Alternately limping and leaping and clambering up the wall like a spider, he played out the magnificent plethora of lifeforms that inhabit our collective psyche – including an amusing episode as “civilized” man, ashamed of his own reproductive potential.

All the while, Koji Motoki’s masterful butoh display was aided and abetted by an inventive live soundtrack provided by the amazing Kazutoki Umezu and the exuberant Lewis Pragasam. One a master of breath capable of producing the most unexpected sounds from a variety of wind instruments (including a length of garden hose and a foot pump); the other a master of rhythm, generating suspense, dynamic tension, and humor on a wide array of percussion instruments.

Umezu’s clarinet and saxophone improvisations were pure jazz expression in the mode of John Coltrane. Short, stocky, bald and bespectacled, Umezu exuded self-confidence and absolute mastery of each instrument, adlibbing with perfect intuition and always supportive of the dance.  There was a high-energy musical interlude in which Umezu – wearing an outrageously colorful jacket – played off Pragasam’s drums with avant-garde abandon. It was a zen encounter with two masters, each coming from a different tradition, embodying different influences and musical genres, yet converging ecstatically in the magical spirit of the eternal moment.

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Lewis Pragasam, master percussionist & jazz drummer

Pragasam proved his well-practiced percussive reflexes, synching right in with the unpredictable drama of the performance. Impressive, considering that this might have been his first experience of an extemporaneous butoh+jazz gig. The dead giveaway was the diabolical grin on his face: veteran performers of avant-garde dance and music never reveal their personal enjoyment of the proceedings.

The three masters wholly succeeded in spellbinding the small but appreciative and thoroughly enthralled audience. Their outstanding performance was cutting-edge art, raw and intoxicating. I drove home in an euphoric trance, drunk with delight.

All in all, a powerful, stimulating piece of work with a mind-blowing artistic integrity rarely seen in these parts. Too bad so many missed it because of limited publicity and the brevity of the event.  Perhaps the Japan Foundation will bring Kotoki and Umezu back again in the near future. Arigato.

4 November 2002

[Note: Koji Motoki passed away on 6 December 2009]

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About Antares

Author, illustrator, actor, musician, composer, arts reviewer, blogger, Abominable Jungleman. Also a stargate activator, ceremonial guardian, interdimensional gatekeeper, pendragon-in-exile, and retired deity.

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