They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
“Butoh challenges the idea of beauty,” their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masks—the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatre—and butoh walks—the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1942. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.
The art form makes us uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call “Cho Ching” in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell me which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, “This is the one I like.”
He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. “Look at this one,” he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. “It’s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.” The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, “This one I can mold into whatever shape I want.” He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, “Dance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.”
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. “If I go through the motions of a dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. But—“ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, “—if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
“I can tell you something, and you don’t have to know any thing about dance, but you’ll understand.”