Takao Kawaguchi’s dance work Good Luck is quietly beguiling, says Andrew Fuhrmann
Takao Kawaguchi – choreographer, dancer and media artist – first visited Melbourne in 2003 when he was still a member of the Kyoto-based art collective Dumb Type, a group that aims to combine visual arts practices with performance art. As part of Robyn Archer’s second Melbourne Festival, they presented Memorandum, a sound and light spectacular dominated by large, manically flickering projections and dancing silhouettes.
In 2017, he toured here again as part of the inaugural Asia TOPA Festival, performing the latest version of his About Kazuo Ohno: Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces at Dancehouse. As the title suggests, this latter piece consists in a detailed reconstruction of the work of butoh pioneer Kazuo Ohno. It’s a project Takao has been devoutly working at since 2013.
Now he returns for a third time; and again he is here as part of Dancehouse’s Asia TOPA programme. Good Luck is a short work that premiered in 2008, the same year Takao left Dumb Type; and it helps to clarify for Melbourne audiences his route from the techno pageantry of Memorandum to his extraordinary, obsessive attachment to Kazuo’s archives.
The show begins in near darkness. As a faint, purplish light fades up, the lean and muscular figure of Takao appears centre stage as if conjured from nothing. He’s wearing dark, nondescript clothes and there are no props. The light directly above him intensifies and Takao brings both hands to his mouth and throws back his head as if drinking off a small bowl.
‘Whatever else it is, butoh is an art of personal transfiguration. It is the performance of the movement of metamorphoses.’
Before launching on his Kazuo project in 2013, Takao had apparently never seen the master perform and never undertaken any butoh training. And yet it’s clear from Good Luck that an affinity for the shadowy expressionism of butoh predated his conversion. Whatever else it is, butoh is an art of personal transfiguration. It is the performance of the movement of metamorphoses. And Good Luck is, transparently, the story of a change.
The action of drinking carries Takao Kawaguchi into a space of transformation. Takao drops his hands and staggers forward out of the light. He then executes a surprising, compact summersault and lands, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, in a new reality.
This new reality is given detail by the sound design of David Vranken. The soft pulses of white noise accompanying the opening moments give way to field recordings of city life. Takao, still on his knees, slowly reaches out and we hear a loud clatter of pots and someone muttering. There is a world going on around this solitary figure. It is invisible but audible.
Who is this slow and plaintive figure? He is recognisable as an urban apparition, a vagrant or box man. Someone who languishes in the shadows and on the margins. And the question asserts itself: is this figure invisible to the world in the same way that the world is invisible to the figure?
Exaggerated disgust as a grimace slowly contorts his features. The theatricality of this expression, and the emotionality of the work as a whole, points up another connection with butoh. American critic Ann Daly has described butoh as a procedure for documenting the sometimes unbearable, sometimes ecstatic limbo between life and death. And, certainly, the space that Takao’s character occupies is a sort of shadowy limbo.
And yet Good Luck is not butoh. Takao himself has called it “a cinematic dance”. The clarity of the sound design gives the piece an almost documentary quality – the Belgian-born Vranken is well known as a movie sound editor – and Takao’s fluent mime, although expressed with an agonised lentor, is always precise and decipherable. A clear if rather eerie and dreamlike narrative develops. And it is funny, too, in its black way. One thinks of the sparse plays of Kobo Abe or the slow films of Hiroshi Teshigahara.
‘The title of this quietly beguiling piece is a mystery, unless it is meant to be read as an ironic comment on the wretchedness of life’
Later, we hear the sounds of cars. Takao has his hands out, imploring invisible passersby. He reels, as if sent spinning by the wake of a passing semi-trailer. The bluish white light floods the scene and the atmospheric sfumato is lost in an instant.
And yet the tempo doesn’t change. This is perhaps the most seductive thing about Good Luck. The cadence of the movement, the relentless slow motion, the constant slow smooth mimic motion, is consistent throughout. Takao’s body is never in fact at rest at any point during the performance. One phrase slips cleanly into the next without visible suturing. There are no poses, only constantly shifting weight and curling lines of transformation.
Movements unfold from the upper body, through the arms, and are then refolded back into the body, ebbing and flowing as the figure withdraws, his arms held close to his chest, then partially relaxes, then withdraws again. He mimes smoking a cigarette, arms wrapped around himself. We hear ocean noises. Waves crashing. Wind over the water. He is staring out to sea. Then he is in the sea, being tugged back and forth across the stage. His arms gradually unfurl. Then he is the sea, whirling on small, rapid, delicate steps, arms extended.
This agitation subsides and Takao pulls up his shirt. The lights have come back down again. His shirt is stuck over his head; his whole body is pulled upstage. He slumps into a corner. This is the final withdrawal. He is lodged in a doorway at the side of the hall. We hear night-time noises. The pulse and murmur of insects. He subsides in a pool of mauve light as the final darkness gathers around him. Purple and black. A luminous bruise.
The title of this quietly beguiling piece is a mystery, unless it is meant to be read as an ironic comment on the wretchedness of life, as if it should read: Good Luck, You’ll Need It. But it’s easy to fall under its spell because it is so personal and intimate and true. The work is apparently based on private everyday moments in Takao’s own life. And it’s worth asking whether this self-mimicry, this exploitation of a personal corporeal archive can be linked to Takao’s fascination with the Kazuo Ohno archive.
In any case, Good Luck has its own melancholy immediacy. At its premiere itwas accompanied by a few quietly apocalyptic lines in the programme – not included in the programme here – that sound like something Paul Celan might have written:
The people had gone
There was no one anywhere
I was left alone to do what was left undone
There is in this poetic fragment the same sense of damage and ineffable sadness that seems to haunt the work as a whole.
Good Luck, choreographed and performed by Takao Kawaguchi, sound by David Vranken. Presented at Temperance Hall as part of Asia TOPA. Program curated by Dancehouse, March 7-8. Takao Kawaguchi’s Good Luck is presented as part of Dancehouse’s Japan Focus, a program that included work by choreographers Akira Kasai and Ruri Mito. The company’s Asia TOPA program concludes later this month with Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto’s Ibu-Ibu Belu.