How can death be imagined? The performance “TodAncestor — dust till down” is a solo dance performance by choreographer Yuko Kaseki and collaborators based on the combination of media, including video projections and live sound recording, with Butoh dance. Containing elements of ritual, it explores diverse aspects of death, such as fear and poetry. This live performance installation is showing at DOCK11 until Sunday 29 August 2021.
When I enter the DOCK11 studio in the half-light, I choose to sit as far back and high up as I can. I don’t know why, but I like to watch dance and performance from a distance. Maybe it’s because I need to take in as much as I can of the whole space, and focus my gaze towards the stage while keeping an empty space between me and the performer. In the semi-darkness I notice a giant white cloth with something underneath it positioned on the floor in the middle of the stage and two white circles drawn at the front of the stage on each side. The stage is otherwise unmasked and open on all the three sides, the brick walls uncovered. I wait, watching this uncertain landscape.
The piece opens in silence. The first video projection starts playing on the wall facing the audience. It is an image of DOCK11 looking back at me, its seats empty except for one seated figure — the choreographer Yuko Kaseki. It is as though this initial image is mirroring the solitude of being dead, I feel it almost as a whisper that in the face of death we are all alone. Gradually but persistently sounds occupy the space and a video projection of damp soil and earthworms covers the entire space. The sound increases in volume, and questions such as Was ist der Tod? ‘What is death?’ and Was bedeutet der Tod? ‘What does death mean?’ are repeated ever more loudly. The images of soil are replaced with trees and the movement of light reminiscent of a pale summer in Brandenburg.
The shape under the cloth, itself covered with soil and black fragments, perhaps of wood and rock, starts to move, somehow recalling the movement of the worms, and, at the same time, sections of arms and various body shapes appear in video together with images of what look like cigarette butts and naked feet walking on soil. Kaseki emerges from beneath the cloth and soil, but she appears to be unable to stand. She seems without strength. She is dressed in a large white tunic that hangs to her knees and underneath it a pale leotard covered with strips of gold fabric. With fragmented movements and a tilting of the torso — features of Butoh, a dance form developed in Japan after WWII — Kaseki finally reaches vertical, supported by a warm light.
Kaseki begins talking about death and rituals in a mix of English and Japanese. One of the rituals that is clearer to me involves ringing a bell to call god. She records herself speaking in order to play her voice back on stage as the soundtrack for the next part of the piece. She then counts out loud in different languages. In my interpretation this would somehow represents time passing and that life and death are a matter of numbers. Again she records herself live as she speaks and uses this recording in the soundtrack for the next part of the piece.
For me, one of the most forceful images from the piece is when Kaseki simulates eating black fragments of wood or rocks. She then collects the fragments and eases them down against her belly and her white tunic. When she raises the white dress and the black pieces to her face, she creates a kind of living sculpture. After this vivid image, she takes off her dress revealing a pale body suit the colour of her skin underneath and asks the question: How many people do you know who have passed away? She begins to dance holding an incense stick, surrounded by smoke and blue light. Towards the end of the piece, she takes a Tibetan singing bowl from the side of the stage and plays it, then finally covers herself with the golden dust contained within the bowl. In the closing moments of the piece, she takes a seat with the audience watching the now empty stage.
This is a dance work with many inputs and full of poetical visions that questions a serious issue in a lyrical way. For example, in the short-written presentation of the piece, Kaseki refers to Buddhism, and when I consider this, I can imagine that the use of the colour blue in the piece could be a reference to the sky, or the gold could refer to fire. And while I enjoyed the piece from my seat in the distance, I sometimes got the feeling that I was unable to follow all the beautiful and intensely proposed images. From my perspective, I find Kaseki’s reading of Butoh through new media interesting and rich, but I wonder if the piece wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in the visual materials in order not to disperse the audience’s attention. For me, it is in the dance itself and in the movement vocabulary — more than in the videos and visual imagery — where Kaseki’s message becomes compelling. As her body folds and unfolds, her fingers vibrating, her back bending, in the movements of her head, she looks fragile yet the wisdom in her body still commands my attention. In the intimacy of her presence and in the detailed awareness in her movements, Kaseki transmits a feeling of togetherness towards life that encompasses fear, like a small flower blooming from the ruins.
“TodAncestor — dust till down”: Direction/ Sound/ Installation/ Performance — Yuko Kaseki. Visual design — Teo Vlad. Assistant director — Lisa Stertz. Creative contribution — Yuko Chigira, Ingrid Müller-Farny, Tot Onyx, Lisa Stertz. Photo — Echo Ho.