Kokoro Dance butoh legend Barbara Bourget reflects on dancing life in A Simple Way

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Barbara Bourget has made a name for herself through her stirring butoh performances with Kokoro Dance, the company she founded with her husband, Jay Hirabayashi, nearly 30 years ago. She’s performed nearly nude and caked head-to-toe in the form’s signature white chalk everywhere from Wreck Beach to the Vancouver Art Gallery. But less well known is that she got her start in pointe shoes, studying with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before joining Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. It took her a long time not to feel badly about training in a tutu.

“I finally learned that you should not have to apologize for having ballet training,” Bourget says in an interview at a Scotiabank Dance Centre rehearsal studio. “I’ve danced since I was a little girl and had my first professional performance at 16. I spent my early 20s doing modern dance. I’d go to a modern-dance class and feel like I was blending in, then I’d hear someone say, ‘Look at that ballerina.’ Now you’d never say that.”

Nor does she have to apologize for maintaining a gruelling performing schedule at age 61. A trip to a butoh festival in Japan in 2009 opened her eyes to the depth that age brings to dance.

“I was so moved by the kind of movement that dancers who were over age 70 were performing, and by the respect they received,” says the Dance Centre’s artist in residence. “They were riveting. The power of a life lived is very strong, and you can bring that with you to the stage. There are not as many dancers here [in Canada] that age who are still performing. Lots are still choreographing. But it’s kind of a shame because you lose that deepening of expression. Seeing those dancers made me contemplate my life in art.”

Reflections on her decades-long career form the basis of A Simple Way, Bourget’s new full-evening solo.

“I wanted to look back over my artistic practice and process and to reinvent myself, which is something you always need to do,” Bourget says. “Obviously I can’t do the same things I did at 20, 30, 40, or even 50. But to me, dance is my life, my expression, my calling. As a lifer in the art form, I really want to bring this experience—all the failures and successes—forward, while moving forward with my art. I’d like to be able to perform this piece for a while, so it deepens and grows as I grow.”

A Simple Way is a milestone for the Vancouver dance veteran, who still captivates with her command of butoh and all its contorted, ultracontrolled gestures. She’s never choreographed a full-length piece for herself before, and it’s also the first time her youngest son, Joseph Hirabayashi, will be accompanying her live on grand piano, playing an original score he composed.

“In the fall we got together and talked about what we were going to do and how to work together, but I think mostly I picked Joseph up and threw him into the deep end of the pool, which I might have done when he was learning to swim,” Bourget says with a laugh. “We have a similar temperament, and we can both have meltdowns at the same time, which is not really productive. We both hit the wall around the 25-minute mark [of A Simple Way]. We went away, worked on it apart, then came back and just tore through to the end.”

The younger Hirabayashi, who has a degree in jazz and contemporary piano and is a member of two local indie-rock bands (the SSRIs and Aunts and Uncles), says he agrees with his mother’s assessment that he had to sink or swim.

“I helped throw myself in the deep end,” he says, sitting next to his mother. “I wanted to take a jab at instrumental composition for dance and went, ‘Oh, this is really hard.’ But it’s also a lot of fun.

“When I was a little kid, I was forced into doing piano lessons but eventually began to love it, and now I’m a piano teacher—I’ve come full circle. I thought it would be really nice to do this, since my mom gave me the gift of piano and music education.”

He describes the score as a series of modernist études that draw on a range of influences, from Claude Debussy to jazz. A Simple Way will also feature projected text written by poet Elizabeth Dancoes, a long-time collaborator of Bourget’s.

While Bourget is creating new material for A Simple Way, she’s also incorporating solos from past Kokoro ensemble pieces from the ’90s, specifically Impending Death, Sunyata, and Dance of the Dead.

“When you do solos in other works, solos are not the focus, but I’m particularly fond of these ones,” she says. “I remember them.”

And in case there was any doubt, Bourget has no plans to stop dancing after A Simple Way.

“What would I do with all the energy I have? I’d go insane,” says the grandmother of four. “I have to keep moving. I’m an endorphin junkie. I feel the earth and the air and the sensation of life in a way that I don’t when I’m sitting on the bus or watching TV or cutting up vegetables. Dance has for me a quality of joy and freedom.

“I needed to say at this time how living is so special and expression is so important. And damn it, art is important, Mr. Harper.”

A Simple Way plays at the Scotiabank Dance Centre tonight through Saturday (June 7 to 9).

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