A bare stage, a handful of lights, two bodies, a sparse score. It’s astonishing how much atmosphere a production can create with so little.
Over its 45 minutes, Motimaru Dance Company’s Twilight uses minimal effects for maximal impact to create an inky, fleshy trance that extends the Japanese dance theatre tradition of Butoh into a dreamlike, experimental performance.
It begins in deep shadow, with the rhythm of slow-falling dripping water.
Minutes pass as two bodies are slowly illuminated by a single light above them.
A man and a woman sit facing one another, legs wrapped around each others’ torsos, their faces covered with long black hair. These are the bodies of Motoya Kondo and Italian-born Tiziana Longo, who form Motimaru Dance Company, in Sydney for a two-show run at The Old 505 Theatre.
Though their faces are hidden and their bodies embrace, their energy shoots out toward the audience. Together, they form a kind of breathing tableaux that slowly begins to rouse. They are still but dynamic. There is nothing passive in their intense muscular control and something co-dependent and symbiotic about the way they relate.
For the next 40 minutes, they push to the limits of expression from that basic conjoined state. Fingers slide through hair, hands grasp, limbs reach out, they hook their heads underneath each others’ shoulders, sway from side to side, rock violently, and eventually withdraw to the ground.
Meanwhile, Hoshiko Yamane’s mainly finger-plucked orchestral score is sensitive to moments of silence, building in layers and harmonies at the piece’s most climactic moments.
The arc of Twilight is so grounded in its performers’ bodies, that when we finally, momentarily, glimpse Kondo’s face, it’s startling.
An avant-garde dance theatre form emerging from the fallout of World War II, shaped by the sensibility of German Expressionism, Butoh has been called the dance of gloom and darkness and disease.
And Motimaru are a pretty serious duo, indeed. They bring a great sense of conviction to what they do and all the stylised markers of Butoh are here: pale bodies silhouetted against a black abyss; an emphasis on visual impact; slow controlled movements; unusual bodily manipulations; a heavily theatrical inclination.
Yet Twilight isn’t dark. It’s thoughtful.
Though it’s tempting to see their melded bodies as animalistic, I think Longo and Kondo are nudging toward the human and elemental rather than the idea of a creaturely organism. They’re floor-bound, as close to naked as they can be, as close to genderless as possible, and going through the rawest of emotional shifts as they collaborate from second to second.
Kondo and Longo shifted to Berlin eight years ago after founding their dance company in Tokyo. Their backgrounds have led them to combine yoga, martial arts and modern dance, but it doesn’t seem piecemeal. Rather, they’ve found an accumulative approach to movement that calls on the ancient to make something new and contemporary.
It’s a sign that the 20th Century art of Butoh is evolving, which makes its presence at this modest inner-west Sydney theatre, run by artists, all the more significant.
Australia’s theatre culture is verbal, driven by dialogue and character. That’s no bad thing, but it’s wonderful as a Sydneysider to have the chance to experience another kind of live performance that comes from a purely physical, visual and aural space; something more about the image and feel of what’s being created rather than plot, a little closer to contemporary performance than a traditional stageplay.
In their stage notes, Kondo and Longo refer to the emergence of homo sapiens from the primordial sludge. But the progression of these two bodies in Twilight could be read in any number of ways: as a metaphor for evolution, for a relationship, for a life from beginning to end.
The show is not inscrutable, and yet searching for a message or an explicit theme doesn’t feel right. Motimaru make image-driven, emotional work to be experienced rather than intellectualised.
This is a cleansing, meditative work and an invitation to tap into art at an instinctual level, disconnected from the screens and images and emails of the day.