Genuine Butoh dance is rare as hen's teeth in Pittsburgh. And we don't get many sunrise shows, either. But both those things happened, together, this past Saturday in the Mattress Factory's garden: an riveting improvised movement-and-music performance by internationally known Japanese performer Taketeru Kudo and acclaimed Connecticut-based experimental musician Michael Pestel.
The 6 a.m. performance for a suprisingly alert crowd of about 20 (not counting Mattress Factory staff) was part of a two-week series of community workshops and shows here involving Kudo, Pestel and other artists; sponsors included the museum, the Children's Museum and the National Aviary. (Full disclosure: My spouse, Renee Rosensteel, was hired by the Children's Museum to document the project.)
The series' final performance is "Stray Birds Sunset Full Moon," at 8 p.m. Friday, at the Mattress Factory. The show is free; call 412-231-3169 or see www.mattressfactory.org.
Butoh is of recent enough vintage (post-World War II) that Kudo once trained with Akiko Motofuji, the widow of one of Butoh's founders. Its expressionistic movement language (though not codified) is largely one of suffering and anguish: spasms, writhing, contortions, deliberate one moment, spasmodic the next.
It's a striking art form, and Kudo a stunning performer. He appears to be in his 30s, wiry and wraith-thin, with a shock of black hair. "Stray Birds Sunrise Performance" began with him appearing atop the Mattress Factory's rough stone wall, some 8 feet off the ground. His skin was smeared with a layer of white make-up, his hair likewise whitened, and he wore a tattered gown the color of the inner bark of a tree. A bit of red thread depending from his left ear suggested a slash of blood.
As Kudo traversed the top of the stone wall in a lizard-like crawl, Pestel, hidden from view, played sparse, bird-song-like passages on his flute. Kudo made his way to ground level, moving in his improvised dance around the rough-hewn Mattress space and among the audience members dispersed around it. His gestures also often suggested those of some animal -- often a dying animal -- while somehow remaining recognizably human. Once or twice he stripped down, not quite naked, and then dressed again, all in stride.
While Kudo developed his silent pantomime of creaturely suffering -- steam rising from his body in the cool, overcast morning -- Pestel, still often unseen, ran through a remarkable series of sounds, from melodic stabs to hoglike snorts and snuffles. At one point, however, Pestel was plainly visible … with a bird call stuffed in his mouth and each nostril, apparently playing all of them at once.
Occasionally, real birds added to the music, though at no point in the hour-long performance was anything loud enough to wake the museum's neighbors.
Kudo too sometimes vanished from our view. At one point he simply fled to the museum's parking lot. After a minute, someone decided to follow him. We found him in the near distance, flitting back and forth across the street that runs uphill perpendicular from Jacksonia Street, the North Side's wooded hills shrouded in mist behind him. When he slowly strode back through the museum's gates into the parking lot, it was an amazing bit of found staging: a moment of profound silence and perfect visual symmetry.
Here's a link to short video interview with Kudo that incorporates footage from the sunrise show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfktw0HdgHw