By Michelle Dee

Transgressions 2019 was a dance festival that explored questions about dual – cultural heritage, how do groups and people new to a country use dance to find their identity as individuals and artists? It is no accident that Lithuanian companies and performers feature so heavily throughout the three day programme, the first being Okarukas Dance Theatre and the site-specific work ‘Birds’.

Apocalyptic scenes in a car park in Hull as something disturbing and utterly compelling  emerges from the side door of a family hatchback. This is Birds and it is unlike any dance performance I have ever seen. If I told you the four performers barely moved three metres in half an hour, yet I couldn’t take my eyes of them you would not believe me. Another car door opens and squashed impossibly inside the footwell head upside down, arms and legs somehow at odds with the body, is another costumed figure, no more than rags and black feathers giving a visual clue to their avian nature. Imperceptible movement heightens the intensity, their eyes staring straight through you filled with something. What is that despair, menace or something else? I can not avert my eyes, I am transfixed as they creep, slide, fold their contorted selves onto and over the cold concrete of George Street car park.

“Birds was captivatingly silent. Audience scared to breathe as we were stared at by the birds whose movements were so small but huge, and the unpredictability of their next move that they created in the small space was immense and inhuman like. The contrast of the audience being in the sunlight and so close to the birds who performed in cold dark shadows had yet more impact.” Helen Powell dancer Smudge Transgressions 2019

This is butoh and as I learn from Phil Von from Okarukas Dance Theatre my first notions about apocalypse are partially correct. Butoh is a form of dance that originates in post-war Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima where performers sought a new language, removed from traditional ballet and traditional Japanese dance.

“It is the soul within a movement… to ignore the form behind the living transformation of the being from the inside. Butoh is metamorphosis to push for a state of animal, vegetable, mineral.” Phil Von Okarukas Dance Theatre

The avian drama that was ‘unfolding’ in the car park did not feature just any birds they were birds stuck in oil, breathing in the poisons with every breath, not knowing that they are going to die. The thing I saw in their eyes was hope, not despair, they still believe they will fly again. Knowing the intention or story behind the work helps me appreciate it more. As festival goers said afterwards, ‘It wasn’t so much that I enjoyed Birds but I sure appreciated it.’

BBC Look North cameras were filming in there so hopefully we will see something on the local news about this awe-inspiring work. Update: Look North featured clips from Birds and Blossom of a Fern by Aura Dance Theatre with interview feat. Hull Dance’s Keyna Paul.

Butoh Workshop with Sakurako
I was fortunate to join Okarukas Dance Theatre, Phil Von and his mentor the butoh master Sakurako for a workshop the following day at State of the Arts on the High Street. Regular readers will know I attend a contemporary dance class weekly there and I am known for throwing myself into new experiences, but this will almost certainly be one of the most challenging yet. It was like nothing I’ve done before. During the next four hours I bent in ways I previously hadn’t to become oil, and fog and a sakura blossom in the first throes of life, ending a dry dusty husk. I learned that by preparing my feet in a particular way, I can do things that I couldn’t before. The warm-up exercises were at least an hour as the six courageous people including students from the Performance Theatre course at the University of Hull, spent over three hours thoroughly immersed in an art form they had previously only heard about.

The thing I found most exciting, engaging and curious was the concept that lies at the heart of butoh, metamorphosis through the power of the imagination. The idea that a body can stop being a body, surpass all the restrictions on being a body, in pursuit of pure performance feels like a power beyond words. You can tell I am just a little taken with butoh.

I must mention the members of Okarukas who were on hand to support, guide, encourage and observe us during the workshop. Observing and feeding back is a vital part of any learning process. They were generous and warm-hearted with their comments, showing genuine surprise that we had been able to find the focus, and the resilience to keep trying in spite of the new challenge, the new ways of moving, indeed totally new way of thinking about movement. Thank you Sakurako and Okarukas for opening our eyes to butoh.

Next more about the Lithuanian connection and community living here in Hull, the  story spanning three years that lies behind Transgressions 2019, and the spell-binding performance from the second visiting company from Lithuania Aura Dance Theatre…

Michelle Dee is a Freelance Digital Media Journalist specialising in the Arts and Culture sector in Hull, City of Culture 2017 Michelle graduated with a first class honours degree in Interactive Media/Digital Media Journalism from Hull School of Art and Design 2009 – 2012.

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