The last time I watched Lena Ang perform was about a decade ago. In one piece, she chased a chicken around the stage; in another, she casually swallowed some sort of vegetation for a good 10 minutes, with a blank expression on her face. That was my first exposure to the shocking world of butoh – a post World War II Japanese dance form. Ang had introduced a new dance genre to Malaysia via fowl and fauna.
After a 10-year hiatus, Ang, dubbed the “Queen of Butoh”, is back in Kuala Lumpur for a “reunion” performance with scattered members of the Taro Dance Theatre (which she founded). They are Ang herself (based in New York), Ana Barbour (Oxford, Britain), Janette Hoe (Melbourne), and globe-trotting Palani Narayanan.
Ang’s choreography, titled Pink, was performed over three days last week at The Annexe, Central Market. The five-part performance was staged in different sections of The Annexe, thus the audience had to move around Galleries 1, 2 and 3.
Pink is what I would call “street butoh”, which cleverly infuses jazz and hip upbeat music that appeals to the (wo)man on the street. It moved away from being an art for the artsy, to being an art for every (wo)man. In fact, its theme, “the sweet and sticky side of gender stereotypes”, wasn’t too hard to swallow.
The dancers’ movements were not grotesque at all. They opted instead for a combination of slow and slightly contorted movements with intermittent twitches and spasms. On many occasions, they even portrayed, through plain and direct actions, the vanities of (wo)men.
Life in Plastic is Fantastic, which kicked off the show, saw the dancers lying in a circle with legs up. As they slowly reached towards the ceiling with their legs, a Barbie doll in pink cheongsam was passed from foot to foot. The legs thrust in mid-air ooked like a flower laden with “active” pollen. That, together with Barbie, combined to give the image of a fertile female.
In the Pink saw Ang, Barbour and Narayanan donning pink gowns, coats and top hats, in their element. They made a pseudo red carpet entrance, each hugging a half-bodied, naked mannequin of the opposite sex. Everything about their movements and facial expressions screamed look-at-me-I’m-a-star as they basked in their narcissism. The physical connection they made with the mannequin – touching, feeling, hugging – implied sexual discovery.
Moving to Gallery 2 from 1 for Let’s Eat Carrots Together, we saw a two-tiered stage – one above the wooden ceiling beams, and one at floor level.
The world below was that of a little girl (Hoe). Veiled in pink curtains, shrouded in pink fluff, and lit by dangling multi-coloured light bulbs, the sickeningly sweet scene questioned if femininity was inborn or a conditioned trait.
The scene on the upper stage with Ang stuffing tissue into her bra and Narayanan lifting weights, showed, above all, that beauty and vanity are common across gender.
There was hardly any pink left in Dog-Eat-Dog save for Ang’s underwear and Narayanan’s tie. Ang emerged as a human Barbie in a short, white cheongsam. As the title suggested, it was all about power struggles, dominance, ambition and control regardless of gender.
The crisp mechanical movements in Let’s Eat Carrots Together and the numerous lifts in Dog-Eat-Dog were a departure from traditional butoh, perhaps in the manner they were executed. Whether or not they were improvised, they didn’t flow smoothly.
In Gallery 3, Pinked-Out obliterated any trace of pink with the whole set in white. Dressed in white, each dancer held a mannequin’s arm or leg. Their mouths wide open in visible anguish, they showed that wiping out gender stereotypes isn’t so easy. It could “cost an arm and a leg”.
When the dancers dropped to the floor and lay still, the lack of activity shifted our focus to the gentle stir of the suspended mannequins that made up the stage decor.
Ang and Barbour had their own butoh styles; Hoe’s approach was more contemporary rather than butoh, while Narayanan needed a bit more concentration and focus.
Overall, Pink was a whacky, humorous and straightforward presentation of stereotyped ideas. It didn’t try to weave in any heavy social messages. In short, it was “butoh lite” that anyone could enjoy. With this first performance in 10 years, Taro Dance Theatre showed that it had lost none of its lustre.
Break-a-Leg is a non-performing former student of Lena Ang. She has never performed after she graduated.