Nude butoh draws crowds even at Wreck Beach

The culmination of Kokoro Dance’s two-week intensive workshop will take place this Saturday and Sunday (July 24 and 25) at noon and 12:45 p.m., respectively

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      Few people would be surprised by an encounter with naked people after descending one of the long, steep cliff trails to Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s famous clothing-optional hangout below the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

      But even beach regulars might be startled by the sight of a dozen or more nude, white-painted dancers executing dance moves on the sand like a choreographed coven of skyclad Wiccans.

      That’s because even though this surreal spectacle has taken place every summer for 26 years running, it only happens for about an hour on two days of the year, sometimes early in the morning.

      “We have to do it when there is a beach, so we have to figure out the tides,” Barbara Bourget, artistic director of Kokoro Dance Theatre, tells the Straight by phone. “Wreck Beach has a fairly narrow beach, depending on what part you want to dance on.

      “If we start it at the right time, we have enough sand, but sometimes you might be standing in water near the end.”

      Bourget—who has been choreographing, teaching, and performing Kokoro’s unique brand of contemporary dance theatre with her life and dance partner, Jay Hirabayashi, since 1986—thinks the sight of her company’s workshop participants is more bewitching than bizarre.
      “You see these beautiful white bodies in the beautiful environment: the cliffs, the sand, the ocean,” she says. “Sometimes we’ll have seals pop their heads up like they’re saying, ‘What is going on?’ ”

      The two-day culmination of the 27th edition of Kokoro’s two-week intensive butoh workshop will be taking place this Saturday and Sunday (July 24 and 25) at noon and 12:45 p.m., respectively, at the bottom of the 360-odd steps that compose Wreck Beach’s Trail 4. (“It’s okay going down, but it’s a bit steep going back up if you’re tired,” Bourget admits.)

      Bourget said spectators are welcome on the weekend, but pictures and videos are not allowed.

      Butoh is a form of contemporary Japanese dance theatre that was borne out of that country’s postwar experience in the late 1950s. Its then-controversial style was a reaction against traditional, formalized theatre and western dance influences, but the spread of butoh companies outside Japan decades later introduced audiences to different versions of the relatively new art form, with many of them retaining the original performers’ nudity, white-painted bodies, and shaved heads.

      Chris Randle

      Kokoro’s workshops, though open to all those capable of strenuous rehearsals and a couple of cliff climbs, are not for triflers. “We do a two-week workshop: nine days of rehearsals, two days of performances, and one day for what we call an ‘undress rehearsal’,” Bourget explains. “We do have professional dancers, but we also have students, we have actors…Kind of a big mix. We’ve even had retired professors, just a wide range of people who are attracted to the freedom of it. Lots of people have done it quite a few times.

      “Once you’ve danced at the beach, you just want to dance at the beach,” Bourget adds. “It’s just a beautiful experience, and I think that people just love it. It’s always different, and that’s one of the things that’s attractive about it. And the beach always looks different.”
      Kokoro’s version of butoh, although choreographed, still reserves space for spontaneity, according to Bourget. “There’s lots of improv but within a certain structure…there’s freedom within it, too. It’s not fascistic; it has its own freedom.

      “We have developed our own ways of doing it,” she says of her and Hirabayashi’s more than three decades of collaboration. “It’s very connected to the environment, and it’s very earthy, in its way.

      “Together, we have blended our aesthetics.”

      Bourget says that Kokoro’s sometimes slow movements are actually reflective of interior imagery and energy, not a sedate mindset.

      “No, butoh is actually very energetic, even if you move slowly,” she says. “It all takes a lot of energy…it’s very challenging and disciplined. In butoh, you can express almost anything with even a small amount of movement.”

      Peter Eastwood

      Bourget doesn’t shy away from being asked about dancing naked at an age when many would be thinking of retirement and relaxation.

      “I’m 70, and I’ve been dancing for 64 years,” she says without a pause. “I just had a knee replacement, and it’s been a rough recovery. Jay’s had two knee replacements, and he recovered quickly.

      “We’ll keep dancing as long as an audience comes to see us—and even if they don’t,” she says, laughing. “I think retiring, for Jay and I, is out of the question.”

      Asked what might change her mind about continuing to dance, she responds, again without hesitation, “I think death.”