Barbara Bourget's A Simple Way defies easy interpretation
Performed and choreographed by Barbara Bourget. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, June 7. Continues until June 9
Whether she’s skittering on all fours or holding a crooked finger frozen curiously out in the air, Barbara Bourget—in her 60s—still has stage presence to burn.
She has shaved her head again for her arduous and highly personal new work, A Simple Way, and when she moves, the white powder she cakes herself in for the performance seems to puff off her like some primordial dust.
Performed with her son, Joseph Hirabayashi (of the band SSRIs) at a grand piano on-stage, A Simple Way is Bourget’s look back at her life as an artist, and at the transience of the universe. The Kokoro Dance cofounder mentions in the program that she’s old enough to have seen parents pass away and grandchildren born, and she aims to distill the suffering and beauty (what she says the Japanese call yugen) into butoh-inspired dance.
And through moments that range from torment to glacial stillness, she does nudge somewhere close to the essence of mortality. Through most of it, she wears Tsuneko Kokubo’s sculptural gauzy gown of blood red layered over white. Early in the work, Hirabayashi’s piano growls in the lower register while Bourget squats and whips her arms around and around like the cogs and wheels of a clock set on overdrive. Is it an embodiment of the cruel joke of the passage of time, or just of our frantic rush through it? Nothing in A Simple Way is easily interpreted. Later, to Hirabayashi’s warped and layered arpeggios, she lies convulsing wildly on the floor.
It’s a testament to Bourget’s watchability that she’s also magnetic in some of the typically butoh-slow moments, gyrating around the stage, or in the piece’s eerie and disturbing final moment, stripped, throwing a long shadow on the wall, and lurching toward the piano when the lights go out.
Structurally, the piece seems to follow not an arc but rather the logic of a delirious dream. Bourget has integrated solos from past Kokoro group works into A Simple Way, along with new material, and the movement has an odd feeling of vignettes pasted together. Hirabayashi’s piano provides some throughline, but he, too, switches up the mood wildly. The structural ambiguity also makes the piece impenetrable at some points, and there are gaps in the midsection where she loses you on her journey.
Still, there’s something fascinating about sharing the room with Bourget, an artist who continues to fully commit to a difficult art form and an unyielding style after all these years. There is a mastery, a courage, and a confidence here that can only come with age. Bourget, and butoh, aren’t afraid to get ugly—and life, as we all know, isn’t always pretty.