Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent & Butoh

A meditation by Angela Yarber | December 7, 2008 | Second Sunday in Advent

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah declares. During the season of Advent we wait for the fulfillment of prophecy. In eager expectation we wait for comfort. We prepare for the coming of light.

Last week, during my semi-regular ride to the BART station with the Durans, Karen mentioned that I looked rather serious during worship. And I shared with her the likely reasons why. Each year I help in planning Advent, the themes, this year the stars glimmering in the darkness of the night sky, the light growing brighter each week. And one would think that I would remember the primary role of darkness during the season of Advent. But without fail, year after year, on the first Sunday of Advent I’m always struck by the role of darkness in this season of preparation. The darkness of the womb. The darkness of a winter night’s sky. The darkness of only one or two Advent candles to light the way.

So, I suppose that last Sunday, these notions of darkness were ruminating in my mind during worship. And over the past week, the role of darkness in Advent, the world, and dance have intersected in way that can only be divinely coincidental. Allow me to explain.

As many of you know, I’m working on a PhD in Art and Religion and right now I’m in what’s called “the comprehensive examination phase.” And only 2 weeks ago I took my 4 hour closed book exam. 4 hours, 2 questions, a tiny room, and a computer. And my questions dealt with the role of Buddhist aesthetics in butoh dance. And I’m sure you’re all thinking, “what on earth does Buddhist aesthetics and butoh dance have to do with Advent?!” And that’s precisely what I want to tell you.

Butoh is a dance that developed out of the chaos and turmoil of post-WWII Japan. After Hiroshima, when Tokyo lay in ruins, when the entire country has been turned upside down and is involved in a rapid process of Westernization because of the American Occupation, artists responded. Tatsumi Hijikata, who is regarded as the architect of butoh, and Kazuo Ohno, who is regarded as the soul of butoh, believed that the forms of classical dance in Japan could not respond to the suffering and darkness that surrounded them. So, instead of releveing up in ethereal ballet or dancing in the pristine noh or kabuki dances of classical Japan, Hijikata and Ohno gnarled their fingers and toes, dropped the center of gravity, and reveled in an earth-bound squat; they created butoh, which appropriately means “the dance of utter darkness.” Butoh was awarded this name after Hijikata’s first performance in 1959 when a Japanese dance critic said that the movement looked like an obscure image within the womb.

Ironically, Kazuo Ohno, who is still alive and dancing at age 102, and is a committed Baptist, likens the dancing stage to the mother’s womb. He believes that dance is only valid in so much as it is spiritual and that dancing is a way for our bodies to unite with their original source: the darkness of the womb.

So, last week, as I sat seriously in worship, I pondered these interesting connections, I thought about how butoh came into my life 2 ½ years ago and how the thought of its darkness and gnarled movements didn’t interest me at first. As a “sacred” dancer, I’ve always reveled in the “light,” the joy of Christ. But my time with butoh has been a lot like my time in Advent. It has taught me that the darkness is not a scary place to be…and if it is, then that’s ok. Life, like faith, isn’t always sunshine and pretty roses. Advent isn’t about sunshine and pretty roses and neither is butoh.

And spending time in the darkness of Advent, or in my case the darkness of butoh, teaches us how to appreciate even the smallest of light. It also teaches that there is a time for darkness in our lives. Hijikata and Ohno remind me, ironically today on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, that we live in a world where suffering abounds. And leaping around with a smile on my face is not an adequate response to this suffering. Butoh dancers revel in this darkness… not in a self-loathing way, but in a manner similar to Advent. You cannot appreciate the birth of light in the world without first spending time in darkness, without first gestating in the womb. And as butoh philosophy contends, the purpose of the dance is to move in and swallow the darkness. So, revel with me in the darkness of Advent, in the darkness of the night sky, in the preparation for birth, birth which brings us a little light of peace, a little comfort.

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