October 20, 2017

by Paul Middendorf for Free Press Houston

edited by Wolf Say

            Four Stages, a collaborative performance created by artist and musician Wolf William Say and artist and dancer Dola Baroni, opened up the first week in October and presented a fresh and exhilarating performance with a multi-day run of the show. Four Stages was written under the influence of late Polish theorist of the theater, Jerzy Grotowski, and performed by Baroni, drawing heavily on her extensive dance training, especially in Butoh. Baroni danced solo as four gods of human error to a score composed by Say in an unusual atmosphere of ceremony. The evenings did not disappoint and unfolded each night to a packed house at MATCH theater in Midtown. The opening night went off without a hitch and hit the ground with the force of lightning, moving the audience with a powerful piece inspired by the traditions of Butoh and elements of contemporary minimalism. The performance ran for three nights. A midday workshop on the final day of the show moved participants through some of the key components of Butoh and into broader spatial understanding. Sunday’s workshop had a workable size and gave the attendees not only a deeper insight to the performance, but also a glimpse into Baroni as a teacher. No dance background was required. While participation in the workshop was not necessary to in order to take in the impact of the performance, it allowed the viewer a closer look at the traditions informing the show.

Four Stages opened with intensity and raw power as a single light blasted on the back curtain and Say’s militant score cored itself into the viewer, creating an immediate uneasiness. Baroni presented herself engulfed in thick, red regalia: a heavy wool and velvet garment that almost entirely concealed her body and face. A stiffly curved collar framed her head. The four acts had elements of simplicity, solidity and profundity. Baroni’s presence was cutting and impassioned. The acts seemed to escalate slowly, bringing more inner energy and agony with each movement, all the while maintaining a level of tranquility, often moving the audience to tears. Say’s direction and score was impressive and displayed the working relationship of many years between he and Baroni. Say and Baroni will be back to working again with each other in two weeks and are planning an ongoing project for Houston. Free Press was able to catch up with the collaborative team to talk about their mutual history and the presentation of Four Stages.

Free Press Houston: Dola and Wolf, it is truly is a pleasure to have been part of your workshop and to have seen your performance. I’m glad to be able to sit down with the two of you to get a little more insight into the development of Four Stages and hear more of what’s on the horizon. Dola, would you tell me a little bit about your background?

Dola Baroni: Well, I had my ballet and my jazz and my tap training. I didn’t do modern and contemporary. I studied Flamenco and Indian style — Bollywood style — and then I stopped dancing completely. Then I was in photo land for a while, concentrating primarily on photography. I left school to move to Japan to study Butoh in 2006; I stayed for three months and then I came back home to LA. I went back to Japan a second time in January of 2007 and stayed there again for another three months. I first studied with Yoshito Ohno at the Kazuo Ohno studio in Yokohama. Kazuo Ohno is one of the founders of Butoh; Yoshito is his son. I stayed there and studied with Yoshito for that first three months. At the end of that trip, I met Yukio Waguri, who was the principal male dancer for Tatsumi Hijikata. Hijikata is the other founder of Butoh.

Right at the very end of my first trip, I started training with Yukio Waguri. I went back the second time so I could train with him more extensively. When I was there in 2007, I studied again at the Kazuo Ohno studio while being very fortunate to also learn Hijikata’s style of practice by way of Yukio Waguri. When I got home from Japan in 2007, the New York Butoh Festival took place in Brooklyn. The festival organizers asked me to take photographs and be a part of the performances and workshops, and I did that.

Later, Waguri came to LA and we worked together there and in different cities. If he were in a certain place, I would go there. I was recently back in Japan studying with Yukio Waguri and Yoshito Ohno during winter 2016.

FPH: How did this overall conversation between you and Wolf spark, and when did you two decide on collaborating?

Wolf William Say: We've always discussed our individual work and workflow, for as long as we've known one another. Four Stages is the first proper production. I sent Dola the name of each of the acts and the wardrobe progression in December of 2015. We started to talk about it and think about it from there. I asked Dola to dance one part of the piece (Animal Dying of Thirst, the third act in Four Stages) on video. She rented a space in LA and danced that piece in the summer of 2016.

FPH: So Wolf, you sent the seed of this project in 2015. What was the drive to start this new conversation? Did you work on that first and then Dola became part of that? Were you sort of continually having a collective conversation?

WWS: I wouldn’t say that we had a collective conversation, but I would say that we have often shown each other what we’re working on. We exchange a dialogue of images that is not limited to formally finished pieces. So that’s partly friendship or relationship, but also a solid working relationship since we first knew one another through photography. This piece didn’t come out of a conversation we were having yet. It was an opportunity to bring our individual practices to one location.

DB: We first met in 2010, but we’ve known each other on the Internet since 2007 — the first few years were photography focused. We didn’t really start connecting with dance together until later around 2011 to 2012. Wolf became more interested in dance and began seeing it as a medium in the same way I saw it. This ‘way’ of seeing it appreciates Butoh, but also other dance, other ‘non-dance’ movements, and certain approaches to work and artwork that involve Butoh. The piece was made for this intersection. It’s Butoh, but not. It’s just something we agree on.

WWS: It’s an opportunity to root around. We agree on the possibilities of image, and the possibilities of audience. It’s an open approach from both sides, so both of us are making final decisions along the way that the other has no say in and would not want any say in. I am curious to know what decisions she will make about the movements. I have no dance training… I think about movement in a simplistic way, in terms of proportional dynamics. Everything has a degree of variation to it, whether measured against itself or something else. Are you moving your left hand slower or faster than your right? Does your knee move forward like a train or like a fish? Are you slowing down or speeding up? The more mastery and understanding a person has, the more subtle the variations can be, and the more variations can be in play at once. And the more range of that kind a person has, the more she can communicate, or dance, with a space. Or a room full of people. Or one person. The only way to get mastery and understanding is to train and practice.

I don’t need to tell her how to move because I know her practice. I’m sure she can move her toes in circles to the beat. Because of that, I can be committed to what the music has to do for the show because she can handle whatever the score needs to be. This show is largely about Industry, so the score had to be terrifying. We didn’t even do a strict dress rehearsal.

FPH: Was there an element of improvisation?

DB: No.

WWS: No, though there is some life left in it.

DB: For Wolf, he knows what I’m going to do. He may not know if I’m going to move my wrist back this way or back and toward my shoulder. (Baroni lifts her arm, moving her wrist through four points of a range of motion). He may not know if it’ll be this way or (she moves less than an inch) this way.

FPH: Tell me a little bit about the four different acts? How did those come about and what were their origins in relation to your background in Butoh?

Say: I don’t have any background in Butoh, though the acts certainly have things in common with Butoh exercises and performances. Carrying a Sacrificial Animal, which is the second act of Four Stages, is a piece of an exercise used by Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski had a successful career in New York in the late sixties. He noticed a strange artifice that was keeping the audience from caring, even if, sometimes especially if, they really loved the show. He created exercises and experiments to try to teach himself and the actors he was working with to re-enter their physical experience completely. At one point, made famous by Andre Gregory’s retelling in My Dinner with Andre, Grotowski is in a forest in Poland with a group of actors for weeks. The exercises are all non-verbal (many of the participants don’t speak a common language anyway) and the work is done from midnight to sunrise. The idea, most relevant today, is to try more directly, straightforwardly. Rather than having dancers and actors and performers on stage who are trying to keep the audience from seeing through them or their technique, or otherwise trying to control what the audience is seeing, have performers on stage who can and will show everything. This requires a different kind of training to avoid base indulgence. You must have something worth showing, something some true effort has gone into. Your person.

DB: But that is Butoh.

WWS: Of course. But that act was the seed, and came from Grotowski. It intersects with Butoh. The body is the common language, so it’s not surprising that these same kind of people in the post-war period go the same direction. They’re working quite separately, but in the same situation. The same situation we're still in. And they see it the same way: people have slipped into an eerie and inhumane spectatorship, and because of it the performer must be doubly responsible.

FPH: The performance seems to fall into a Butoh tradition of darkness. It has beauty and a sense of movement, but I sensed darkness in the piece as a whole. Can you speak about that and your movements towards that? Were you sticking to a tradition of Butoh there, or how did you weave your vision of those acts into the final production?

DB: I know you see it darker than I see it. To me it’s not about being dark or being grotesque. It’s more about showing every single aspect of living. The whole experience. It’s important for you to see me when I don’t know you’re seeing me, when I’m gone. So that you in the audience, you have your own thing. You can watch me do anything because it’s not only for you. It’s real. I’m not trying to be dark or be scary; I’m not trying to be not beautiful; I’m just trying to be honest and go far in all the ways that we can go together in that space. When I’m alone — just me — I dance to Otis Redding, but it’s the same level of exploration of all the directions. If it gets dark, it’s dark, but it’s not dark in a hopeless sense.

I was really surprised that there were ballet people that were really interested in this here. Ballet and the contemporary modern dance world, they’re running out of things. They understand that nobody wants to see a ton of pirouettes and beautiful falls on the floor anymore. It’s just not interesting. It’s tired. So, I don’t think of my dance as Butoh — I think of my approach as Butoh.

FPH: With the conclusion of this visit and your three-night run, what are you two thinking of for the future?

DB: We have a lot of footage to watch and edit and share. We want to do this again. We want to do another run of the show. Of course, more projects are coming. They won’t all be dance and movement. I’ll be back in Houston in a couple of weeks.

WWS: We’ll be screening some films of Kazuo Ohno (performances and a couple of choice interviews) for his birthday on Thursday, October 26th at Café Brasil. 8:30pm.