From the opening of New York-based performer Vangeline’s tribute to composer Beethoven and Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, it’s clear this is going to be a dark 45 minutes. Butoh— the dance that emerged in Japan following the second world war—was created to challenge classical movement and take its performers somewhere uglier and more grotesque. A string of pig masks hangs like bunting on the backcloth, while Vangeline, dressed in sumptuous gothic silk and velvet, shines a flashing red light up to her face. As she picks out the hollows and bones, a flickering, grimacing vision of something otherworldly and terrifying comes before us.
This gives a dose of both flavours of Vangeline’s self-confessed influences: Butoh and film noir. The schlocky scarlet glare glows on her silent movie make-up like a neon sign, while a darker set of shadows seems to lurk just beyond reach in her mind.
If one of Butoh’s aims is to thrust its performers deep inside themselves to find states of transformation then Vangeline succeeds in travelling this path. As the piece progresses to see her conduct the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th then carouse to French chansons it’s clear that she is journeying on some disturbing train of thought. But she doesn’t always carry us with her to these darkened places, and some of the elongated sections of minute or repetitive movement go on so long that their power is diluted.
As an academic study of one woman’s passage through Butoh, Butoh Beethoven is definitely interesting, but perhaps not interesting enough to be a fully formed piece of dance theatre.