Choreography by Oguri
The Electric Lodge, Venice, California, February 17-19, 2017
Death and taxes are the two inevitables in a person’s life. And while taxes are not ever danced about (danced around, perhaps), the subject of death has never been one from which dancers and choreographers have shied away. As part of its “Flower of the Season,” currently in its 14th year, Body Weather Laboratory (a forum for investigating kinesthetic and movement research that was initiated in 1978 by dancer/farmer and improvisateur, Min Tanaka), presented a new work by Oguri, the Japan-born Butoh dancer who leads BWL in Venice, and, to be blunt, never fails to astonish.
For this iteration, Oguri was joined by his wife, choreographer/dancer and BWL co-leader, Roxanne Steinberg, and her sibling, Morleigh Steinberg, a co-founder of Momix and ISO, as well as an Emmy award-winning choreographer and filmmaker. (Her stunning documentary Height of Sky aired on the Sundance Channel and chronicled Oguri’s three-year foray into the California desert; with Oguri, she also founded the international dance co-op, Arcane Collective in 2011.)
The elegiac performance, Oguri’s response to his mother’s death last summer, was haunting, imagistic and mesmerizing. From the first moments, when Morleigh, accompanied only by silence and moving around the stage at a snail’s pace while brandishing a wooden candelabra holding more than 50 lit candles, was herself a symbol of purification, a holy blessing, if you will, only her face visible and her fixed gaze looking as if she had the answers to life’s deepest questions.
And then the reveal—a sleight-of-body feat that had Roxanne coming into view from behind her sister—proved even more wondrous, as a communal gasp echoed from the audience, the darkened stage womb-like, the shimmering candles an altar of sorts. Morleigh lifted the menorah-esque prop overhead, her sister creeping and slinking around her until the duo came to rest on bended knees, the stage now a confessional illuminated by those hopeful torches.
The flames were as unwavering as the sisters’ unblinking eyes, until, that is, their orbs squinted, rolled upwards and faux-crossed, a lopsided grimace also blooming on Roxanne’s face. This head/neck/visage dance served to unite the siblings like Siamese twins, as John Cage’s metaphorical 4’33” (ear-crushing silence), continued to serve as the soundtrack to this mysterious dance of life.
The Steinbergs then ceded the stage to a crouched-up, fetalish Oguri, visible only in a rectangle of light against the back wall, as minimalist music from John Gibson’s “Visitation II” (1973)—leaves crackling, water rushing, trains whistling—pierced the air. Dressed in a white sleeveless top and white boxer shorts, the agile mover resembled a baby chick bursting from its shell, his splaying toes a spirited gesture.
As Gibson’s score veered into iron jungle territory—sputtering motors in a junkyard concerto—Oguri offered his own silent scream, his face a contorted version of reality, as he oh-so-slowly rose from his knees. It was then that Roxanne reappeared and, Chaplinesque, began painting a long vertical stripe on the back wall before Morleigh returned, this time carrying an unadorned bucket that she suspended from the ceiling with two strings. Leaning over it, she repeatedly doused her long hair with water as if an animated Fragonard painting—on acid!
The lighting, designed by Oguri and Morleigh, was moody and effective, now providing shadows on the walls, a cacophony of meadow sounds amping up as Morleigh exited and Roxanne returned. Joining Oguri, the two dancing bodies, on their backs and playing a game of transcendental footsie, seemed to be possessed by one soul and querying: How are we rooted to the earth? To each other? To those in and outside our orbit?
As amber lights permeated the area, Morleigh made her way back to the action, this time clad in a long, muslin colored dress. A return to silence signified more squatting, her grasping, reaching limbs also bringing to mind Andrew Wyeth’s iconic work, “Christina’s World.”
As Oguri asks in the press notes, “Can we be in another’s body? Can we feel through the other’s senses,” this performance, to those open enough to receive such musings, suggests it is possible. And, as Morleigh scooped the air with willowy arms, moving in response to Oguri, who at one point strutted as if fencing, the duo was locked in a kind of knotty supplication in this temple of high art—the theater—before withdrawing from the scene.
Roxanne then offered a convulsive solo that also managed to recall Nijinsky’s two-dimensional poses before the lights went to black. When Oguri next appeared—from the top of the audience staircase and holding a lone candle—he was, literally, shining a light, before the trio reunited on stage for their bows. When the house lights went up, there was Morleigh, displaying the empty candelabra, this segment adding a touch of humor to an evening trending more towards profundity.
But, as it happened, this was only one of several false endings, and, with a sly grin, Morleigh began affixing candles onto the wooden holder, her sister helping to light them—all of them—before Morleigh again raised the candelabra high, this time as if she were Lady Liberty.
Finally joined onstage by a bespectacled Oguri, the dancers reveled in their much-deserved curtain call(s), signaling an end to a dance that was, indeed, one for the ages.