Even through the two-dimensional portal of the Internet, Mushi no Hoshi looks amazing, otherworldly, and not a little unsettling. Set to the computerized clatter of Detroit techno, Akaji Maro’s choreography suggests that some kind of hive mind is controlling the 22 members of his Dairakudakan butoh troupe. The dancers move in loose unison, twisting their thoraxes and dangling forearm “mandibles” in a decidedly antlike manner—which is understandable, given that the Japanese company enjoyed some outside help in developing its latest collection of moves.
“We have our own techniques, but at the same time we learned from actual insects,” Akaji reveals, speaking in Japanese in a conference call from Tokyo facilitated by translator Kazuho Yamamoto. “We brought an ant to the studio and we observed, and we pretended to make some of its moves. There are over 20 dancers, and they observed, and they did their own interpretations. We had different expressions that we gathered, and then this piece came together.”
There’s more to the work than the inspired emulation of nature, though. Mushi no Hoshi, which is subtitled Space Insect in English, emerged from the 72-year-old Akaji’s concern for the kind of world his generation is leaving behind. His personal legacy will be impressive: in addition to his work as a butoh innovator, Akaji has an extensive filmography as an actor, including a memorable cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1. Our collective inheritance, however, is less reassuring, and Mushi no Hoshi’s framing device involves a message from a shadowy interstellar civilization, informing humanity that it’s time for the bugs to take over.
“Humans are destroying our environment, and I fear this century might be the end of the world; there won’t be a next century,” the choreographer says. “And in making this piece I was trying to express insect lives, and their wisdom.
“Some aspects of this piece are kind of a little bit experimental,” he continues. “In Mushi no Hoshi we are dancing as insects. It might look comedic at times, or humorous, but at the same time it will look as if we are transforming into other creatures—something between human and insect. Recently there’s been a scientific study about combining insect DNA and human DNA, trying to get some good aspects of insects into humans. And there’s also another discussion: should we go to another planet to survive, or should we stay here?”
Akaji’s flair for the comedic, the horrific, and the speculative has long been Dairakudakan’s hallmark, says Kokoro Dance’s Jay Hirabayashi, who along with his wife and artistic partner, Barbara Bourget, has booked the troupe for the 2015 edition of their annual Vancouver International Dance Festival.
“In 2009, Barbara and I went to Tokyo, and we were visiting with [butoh innovator] Natsu Nakajima, and she suggested that we go see Dairakudakan,” Hirabayashi says. “So we went to the show, and it was fantastic. What I liked about it was that it was actually a piece that Maro had built mostly on the women of the company. There was one point in the performance where the women came out with these large clay jars, initially under their arms, and then they stuck the jars between their legs and Maro came out and danced around for a while and then he went headfirst into one of them, like he was trying to get back into the womb.
“It was refreshing for us,” he adds, “because you don’t often see that sense of humour in butoh.”
It remains to be seen whether Mushi no Hoshi incorporates a similar kind of slapstick element; the online evidence suggests that it is darker, stranger, and bigger than works like the one Bourget and Hirabayashi experienced. But if the piece has emerged from a place of despair, Akaji reveals that he’s not quite ready to give up on Earth.
Asked if fleeing our ruined sphere is a comforting option, Akaji laughs and says he’s prepared to stick with what we’ve got. “Now is the time that we need to transform ourselves instead of destroying,” he says. “So I will try my best with this planet!”
Dairakudakan presents Mushi no Hoshi at the Vancouver Playhouse next Friday and Saturday (March 20 and 21).