Kota Yamazaki brings his Butoh-based work to the Dance Center.

How a trip to Africa inspired light for an otherwise dark style.

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Kota Yamazaki's (glowing)

Kota Yamazaki's (glowing) Photograph: Tyler Sparks

Kota Yamazaki had just arrived in Senegal. The Japanese native flew to the West African country in 2003, as part of an artist-in-residence program at the Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances (l’Ecole de Sables). It was a time he fondly remembers as “peaceful.” He spent his days “mostly dancing, resting, dancing, fishing, eating and sleeping.” It was a simple life, and unforgettable. But the most vivid memory during his trip came on that first day, when the founder and artistic director of the New York–based Fluid Hug-Hug dance company introduced the Butoh technique—a Japanese style of dance known for its simplicity and dark undertones—to a group of African dancers.


“Some of them started weeping in the middle of the practice,” says Yamazaki, who brings his work to the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago September 27–29. To begin the exercise, he notes, he had the dancers sit on the ground, eyes closed, as if seeing inside themselves. When the tears came, the 53-year-old panicked. He’d never witnessed anything like it, let alone from men he describes as big and strong.


“They said to me, ‘I don’t like my body being left alone. I am scared,’ ” Yamazaki recalls. He gives one possible explanation: “Maybe their sense of community was very strong, and they needed to constantly communicate with each other physically and verbally. It was such an unexpected and breathtaking experience.”


The choreographer decided to shift gears. He developed movement that catered to the dancers’ abilities, piecing common elements between African dance and Butoh, two contrasting and culturally different techniques. Where African dance finds light, Butoh, Yamazaki explains, explores darkness. “[It] is digging down into your body to find individual memories and landscapes hidden inside yourself.”


But eerie characterizations of the so-called hidden aspects of Butoh come with the territory. Developed during the post–World War II era, the Japanese method has been described in heavy terms. After the death of Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of Butoh, the New York Times obituary described Ohno’s creation as a dance-theater form that “mines the primeval darkness of life and death in harrowing theatrical physical imagery.”


Yamazaki talks about inherent differences: “In Japanese culture, people find imagination and unique nuances in vagueness,” he says. “As darkness is not equal to one black tone, but more like multiple layers of sensitive lights and shadows, I think Japanese people found a beauty in the dim world where different illusions can emerge and different truths can exist.”


In (glowing), a piece that Yamazaki premieres at the Dance Center, multiple layers sprout from the work of Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who writes of “refined beauty found in darkness,” as a program descriptor states. Taking cues from his time in Senegal and inspiration from Tanizaki’s writings, Yamazaki employs dancers from Senegal, Ethiopia, America and Japan, an ensemble that lived together during the creation of the piece. One of the challenges, Yamazaki says, “was to find harmony and make a coherent work with performers who have totally different dance languages and cultural backgrounds.” Utilizing their respective experiences and influences, (glowing) sheds some light on the dark stigmas of Butoh. Whether it succeeds, according to Yamazaki, will not be measured in the immediate future, but he hopes the piece has an impact later.


“I feel like what choreographers can achieve may not be so significant if we see this world from a longer—like a few hundred years—perspective,” he says. “But I am still hoping that I’ll find something significant to pass on to future generations.”


(glowing) premieres at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago September 27. Tickets available at tickets.colum.edu; $26.


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