SEPT 2 1998
by Rita Felciano, Bay Guardian Dance Critic

Butoh Festival Featured International Cast

EXUSIAI ARE angels in charge of the mineral kingdom, according to Dionysius Areopagite, the mythical fourth-century philosopher. Exusiai is also the name that Akira Kasai, the Japanese butoh artist, gave his cosmic wanderings, which received a single performance as the final offering of the 1998 Butoh Festival. Subtitled Global Butoh this year because of its international cast, the festival is the only one of its kind in the country and has a good chance of becoming a fixture in the area's summer calendar.

Exusiai alternated dazzling solo improvisations by Kasai with tightly set choreographies for four local dancers: Takami, Brechin Flournoy, Kristin Lemberg, and Megan Nicely. (Also part of this supporting chorus was Akiko Nishisaka from Japan.) The women's controlled, angular, and often unison gestures framed but couldn't contain Kasai's flamelike explosions as he twirled and skipped through their formations as if they were wispy projections of his mind. At one point he had the women line up according to height like a column of ancient statuary that slowly reconfigured itself as the women worked their way across the stage. As Kasai darted and flitted among them, he looked like the wind blowing across an immense, abandoned plain. Rarely has the extraordinary depth of Yerba Buena's stage been used more effectively.

Kasai roamed huge, timeless spaces that contracted at the twitch of his lip. Sliding on a toe or the rim of a foot, he looked as if he was trying to find his way across the surface of a pockmarked planet or balance on the edge of a towering precipice -- before suddenly collapsing like a puppet whose strings had been cut. At certain moments, against a black background or Jason Jagel's wispy, cartoonlike drawings of babies, he looked like St. Exup
éry's little prince, only to morph into a terrified, vacantly staring monster. Carl Stone added another interesting element with his excellent, electronic score.

Kasai is an extraordinary performer able to command the various parts of his body with the skill of a conductor taking an orchestra from the softest whisper to a crashing tutti. Still, at an hour and a half, Exusiai was too long. There were too many places where the piece could easily have ended. And when it did finally end, it seemed inconclusive -- although maybe that was the point.

Other festival offerings underscored just how much of an international art butoh has become. Performers came from Japan, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, and Thailand, most of them appearing for the first time in this country.

The most extreme performance was delivered by Japanese dancer Abe "M" Ria, who flung herself with terrific force onto the stage and for the next 20 minutes flailed and bounced off the floor like a drop of water on a hot griddle. The most beautiful was an ensemble piece performed at a very cold Ocean Beach by Kokoro Dance (from Canada) and some 15 workshop students. The image of the frozen, white-painted bodies in glacially evolving movements, against the gray sand and turbulent ocean, carved itself into the soul.

The most disappointing performance was by Argentinean Gustavo Collini-Sartor, who claims kinship with the masterful dancer Kazuo Ohno (because of the latter's lifelong fascination with flamenco dancer La Argentina). Collini-Sartor's theatricality and mobile face did not make up for an inexpressive body and lackadaisical execution.

The biggest surprise was by Mexican dancer Diego Pinon, whom I saw two years ago at Brady Street. At that time I was underwhelmed, thinking him rather obvious and unoriginal. This time around -- dancing the same piece -- he was focused, precise, and had immaculate timing. It was a totally mesmerizing performance. Go figure.

And certainly the most overlooked element in all the performances was the work of lighting designer Joe Williams, whose skill and sensitivity made it possible to see what butoh can be.