Yumi Umiumare’s Butoh work Forbidden Laughter shows that laughter isn’t always funny, says Philipa Rothfield
Butoh Out’s 2019 performance season, Forbidden Laughter, draws together 20-odd performers. They’re a heterogeneous bunch, hailing from a variety of performance backgrounds and levels of experience. Although framed as Butoh, the performance could equally be seen as theatre, physical theatre, cabaret, even burlesque. It’s not, however, comedy. This is in a sense odd, since Forbidden Laughter works with the premise that Butoh can incorporate laughter. But laughter is not always funny. Laughter can be forced, a sign of derision or aggression. It is also a means of securing conformity.
Audience members enter into a space populated with constructed characters engaged in a variety of quirky pursuits. A woman in a bright yellow wig performs an ungainly dance, a near naked man pours molasses over himself, two men in business suits and glasses banter amongst themselves. A pair of tensile bunnies select audience members in turn, laughing at close quarters, often eliciting laughter in response. Is this genuine amusement on the part of audience members, or some kind of behavioural mirroring, a contagion of near-hysterical mirth? I find myself joining in, not because I find the bunnies at all funny but because it feels churlish to maintain a serious face at such close quarters. There is also a desire to engage rather than reject what is on offer.
A good deal of the show calls for some kind of engagement, often outside the domain of the comfortable spectator. Indeed, discomfort is one of the key affects at play here. Maude Davey is dressed as a kind of bride, sporting a full beard. The bearded lady is an old chestnut from circus side-shows. But even now, in a post-queer time and space, there is a palpable tension between the bride and that beard. Yumi Umiumare, a force behind Australian Butoh generally and this show in particular, is by contrast a comforting figure. Dressed in an apron, she welcomes her audience, smoothing their entry into this live tableau of character and costume.
Once settled, the performers come together in a crescendo of manic laughter. Laughter here is a precursor to the performance proper, which is marked by a Welcome to Country from an Indigenous performer sporting a possum scarf. The two bunnies go-a-hunting, picking up row after row of audience members, stringing them along on a rope which they guide through the space, giving us an opportunity to experience distant performers. The space shifts once the audience is mobilised, especially since audience members participate in the action from time to time. That old comedy standby by, toilet humour, is milked well beyond the usual allusions to bodily functions. The literal use of a toilet on wheels raises questions regarding decorum and propriety, a reminder of Louis Buñuel’s toilet dinner party in the film, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
Made in collaboration with Weave Movement Theatre, Forbidden Laughter raises questions about the proper body. Weave’s embrace of diversity is conjoined with an invitation to create quirky modes of character on the part of all the performers. The resulting mix of personality and appearance enables Forbidden Laughter to play with laughter and normativity. This is expressed in the joke format, drawing on jokes made at the expense of people who use wheelchairs or walking sticks. Interestingly, it is a woman on wheels who utters the joke about wheelchair users, and a woman with a stick who utters the joke about women who use sticks.
Sigmund Freud once said that jokes are symptomatic of the unconscious, a means of expressing that which we disavow. In the case of these anti-disability gags, the joke is on us. This is only made more palpable by a semi-striptease that reveals a corporeal breadth that ends up being nothing special. Big, small, this or that, we are all embodied human beings. Everyone is different, everyone is the same.
A final note on the body and self within this work and the performance of laughter. Who is it who laughs in Butoh? Some of the characters in this work functioned as ciphers, beyond who they were as people. This opened up a realm of possibility for the viewer to experience and interpret the uncanny function of the work as a whole. Watching individuals, I came to wonder why it is that some were able to turn themselves into a performative surface, while others remained caught within who they were. There is a parallel here between Keiicho Ueno’s comment about ego and laughter, that laughter ruptures the ego. The less the ego, the greater the performative power. I would also say, the greater the pleasure of spectatorship.
To my mind, Forbidden Laughter was not especially funny. Rather, it used the figure of laughter to do something else: to question, trouble and transgress a variety of social, bodily and performative norms, with a greater and lesser degree of success. I think its greatest strength was its challenge to normativity and its normalisation of diversity, both on the part of the performers and in its mode of welcome to a diverse and nonconformist audience.
BIO Philipa Rothfield is co-author of Practising with Deleuze (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is Creative Advisor at Dancehouse, Co-editor of the Dancehouse Diary, and Professor of Dance and Philosophy of the Body (honorary) at the University of Southern Denmark. She is also member of the Green Room dance awards panel.
Forbidden Laughter, choreographed by Yumi Umiumare. Dramaturgy by Maude Davey, visual installation by Pimpisa Tinpalit, sound design by Dan West, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle. Performed by Weave Movement Theatre, Willow J Conway, Zya Kane, Kiki And, Tomoko Yamasaki, Yumi Umiumare, Maude Davey, Butohout Ensemble (Workshop Participants). Abbotsford Convent. Until May 12. Bookings
Abbotsford Covent’s Industrial School is a fully accessible venue. There is a gentle ramp to enter the building and wheelchair accessible toilets are available. Should you require special seating arrangement and/or if you are a Companion Card holder, please contact at firstname.lastname@example.org