Akira Kasai

April 25, 2002

Butoh dancer Akira Kasai in his solo Pollen Revolution.
Hideyo Tanaka, courtesy Akira Kasai

Akira Kasai

Japan Society
New York, New York

April 25?27, 2002

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

The art of Akira Kasai, an honored butoh performer from Japan, is somewhere between the fanciful forays of Kazuo Ohno and the tortured journeys of Min Tanaka. With his agile and wiry body, he is a more athletic performer than those two, but less intense. For his New York debut, Kasai performed Pollen Revolution, a solo work that moves from restraint to over-the-top abandon.

He first appeared in stately red-and-black Kabuki robes and elaborate headgear. White rice powder covered his skin, and red powder surrounded his eyes. He stood nearly still, moving his head just enough for his hair ornaments to shimmer. Then he curved around the space, rising and sinking as though the floor were a sponge. Keeping his arms contained in the space near his chest, his hands undulated as though they were part of the same ribbon. His eyes, mostly cast downward, occasionally opened in a look of exaggerated surprise. The white backdrop and unforgiving lights (Masaaki Aikawa designed the latter) prevented any sense of warmth. To Kei Shii’s sound score of distant crashes, sweet koto melodies, and Noh chanting, he gradually became springier, his masklike face changing expression at greater speed. His wig flew off, and the dancing got crazier. Suddenly half the stage went dark and three assistants entered to change his clothes and rub the red off his eyes.

As soon as the lights came up, Kasai, now dressed in casual black, walked forward and promptly fell into the orchestra pit. Perhaps the shift from feminine to masculine, ceremonial to colloquial, past to the present, and tragic to comic, threw the character off balance. Once again vertical, he seemed to engage in ordinary actions like driving a car or tying a knot. But often his actions were more about making right-angle shapes, sometimes rather brutishly. The atmosphere turned ominous, and we heard the sound of a jet plane flying low. In a narrow beam of light, his angular, weary poses brought to mind the prodigal son after he was seduced, robbed, and beaten.

Part Marcel Marceau, part Mick Jagger, Kasai possesses the charisma to sustain the seventy-minute dance. He would leap into the air but start another step before landing. He would drop to the floor so abruptly that the crack of his knees hitting the wood was audible. He would fall into the backdrop, looking lost in space.

Butoh is known for its transformations, and Kasai sometimes shape-shifted from a clawing animal into a bird, but never with the slow-burning inner struggle that one sees in some butoh practitioners. His low groans and high sighs and his isolated Japanese and English utterances all seemed part of a kind of existential fun. But when he paused, a sad look crossed his face, as if hope or love were dissolving before his eyes. After he changed yet again (in an endearingly awkward way) into an androgynous white suit, white flakes (pollen?) fell from above. This gave him a lovely environment to thrash around in, which he did marvelously to an American rap song with a heavy beat, creating the kinesthetic peak of the evening. (Kasai studied eurhythmy in Germany.)

At the end, he walked forward, dropped some white flakes from one hand, and let the other hand flutter downward miming the movement of the flakes. Then he turned away and walked upstage, his body empty and dejected. He seemed to recover by the curtain call, however, as he proceeded to perform two playful, almost clownish, encores.