In Butoh Beethoven, New York based French performer Vangeline has created a mesmerising and exhilarating jewel, formed under the pressure of souls twisting through agonies and striving for the release of beauty. Its facets grab and grip attention throughout, presented with intense focus and unbelievable physical control.
The ghosts of Tatsumi Hijikata (co-founder of Butoh) and Ludwig van Beethoven are conjured with such contortions that we watch one possessed – indeed, Vangeline apparently invokes spirits as part of her preparation for performance. Half-closed eyes flickering demonically, contorted features painted white and black, and agile red tongue dancing, this is a living mask under static pig masks strung along the back wall which represent us, the audience. Butoh is a ‘dance of darkness’, connected to explorations of violence as well as spirits, where fears are to be confronted in ‘a dance which crawls towards the bowel of the earth’, according to Hijikata, and where it might be possible to transform darkness into the brilliance of diamonds.
In Butoh Beethoven, ominous drones of planes, eliciting thoughts of imminent bombing, morph in and out of Beethoven’s imposing music – which starts with that oh-so-familiar dramatic de-de-de-daaa of his Fifth Symphony – and song such as ‘Le Complainte de la Butte’. We are drawn into a world of passionate struggle, huge pain and the glories of composition, of performance, of pouring one’s soul into beauty to combat torment. Butoh followed in the wake of its founders’ harsh experiences during World War Two, while Beethoven fought to continue creating despite despair at his ailments. Of the fifth symphony, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote: “only through this [longing] pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.” It is little wonder then that Vangeline was moved to evoke Hijikata and Beethoven together.
Vangeline’s exquisite control allows change where there seems no movement, as well as holding distorted shapes, sinking below crushing metaphorical weight and fighting to rise to the heights of glorious accomplishment. Black shadows emanate from and combine with her stark white figure, and red pulses as a heart beat or flows like fires of hell. The figure (masculine in feel) passionately conducts with a baton that can glow whitely in the dark, as do – faintly – the pebbles curved before it. Emerging finally from heroic struggles, we are transported to a shore of sea sounds, a washing clearance that may carry peace.
While Butoh Beethoven started – following long French songs – ten minutes late and then lasted all of thirty minutes instead of the advertised hour, the quality of the production is such that this is still a resplendent piece of performance theatre well worth seeking out: a true tour de force, literally a feat of strength, within and without.