In our current environment in which we are assaulted by a cacophony of white noise at every turn, a constant barrage of words and images, there is little room for contemplation. Some of us look to a work of art for that moment of illumination in which we see beyond the surface, and gain some deeper insight into the nature of the human condition. Or perhaps the mysteriousness of material existence. We hope to discover something we didn’t know or perceive in that way before. And sometimes less is more, in a truly zen way.

Such is the case with the The Empty Room the latest  work directed, choreographed and performed by interdisciplinary performance and media artist Michael Sakamoto with collaborating performers Rennie Harris, Chey Chankethya, Nguyen Nguyen, Waewdao Sirisook, Arata Mao, Kyano Tetsuro, and Ishihara Natsumi. Sakamoto, who is an accomplished butoh artist, demonstrates how much can be said by the human body fully inhabiting a starkly bare space with simple lighting, when media is used sparingly as accent, and music is a partner in conversation. While that might be your expectation for a butoh work, Sakamoto extends the traditional movement vocabulary well beyond its established form, stretching it into new territory with surprising results.

This is the interface where the underlying themes and synergies reside, where different cultural voices unexpectedly connect, struggle to bridge the gap, or find their own space. Questions of relationship to self, place, and other are played out in and through the body and spirit.

Sakamoto states “ We can only live within the means of our nature, but this holds endless potential. The body fearless in crisis must learn to sustain itself. This is the world’s lesson to itself in this historical moment.”  And so he plunges in to reveal the potential within and without. “The Empty Room” consists of  four parts, each of which explores an aspect of  this challenge in a different way, evolving from abstraction to narrative in its gestural journey and visual signage.

The opening piece White Screen is performed by Sakamoto and Waewdao Sirisook, a Thai dancer trained in both traditional Lanna arts and contemporary dance, in concert with live electronic music performed and composed by Amy Knoles whose rhythms, beats, and punctuations are the muscle and the breath of the movement. Each begins slowly, Sakamoto kneeling in goggles and raincoat, and Waowdao in red pants, halter top, sunglasses, and long straight hair, on opposite sides of the space, he in front, she in back. His gestures angular, hers fluid –  arms, hands, faces finding themselves. Each speeds up at different points matching the shifts in music. They exist in their own separate orbits yet gradually changing places, he in back, slithery, she to the forefront, frenzied. They come together briefly in sync at center stage, then move on, once again separate, but ending now in each other’s place. Watching their passage from one state to the other is mesmerizing.


In Genjokoan a young woman (Arata Mao) in a long white dress climbs out of the audience and falls face down on the ground. Throughout a breathtaking silent solo that follows we watch her “become” herself and fully occupy the space around her.

She crawls, stands, shakes out, pulls her hair, igniting her head into action. Arata uses her hair as if it were a driving source of energy. Here the butoh vocabulary is not a meditation but a powerful life force animating her face and entire body as she pulls and pushes into the space, feeling the floor and the air, navigating and testing the terrain. in a circle of light. She wraps the fabric of the skirt over her head, arms and fingers carve, cut, drill, hammer, sweep, pierce the air. She comes up in a swirling spinning skirt with centrifugal force. She gathers, beckons, sinks and falls.

In sharp contrast a man wearing a mask emerges from the dark carrying a woman over his shoulder . He deposits her and a song begins setting the theme – “Ill Be Your Mirror” by the Velvet Underground. She stands, her face covered by her hair. He leads, guides, animates her — master and student,  Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

He removes the mask and watches as she repeats what she has learned. She uncovers her face, and the roles reverse. They gaze into each other, go back and forth between attraction and resistance, becoming one and coming apart when Arata returns with his mask.


Choreographed, written, and performed by Sakamoto and Rennie Harris,the third piece Flash is the highlight of the evening, and perhaps the place where Sakamoto takes the greatest risks and makes the boldest and most moving discoveries. Harris, who is the director of his own hip-hop dance company, is known for his commitment  to facilitating the true creative spirit of hip-hop rather than the “commercially exploited stereotypes portrayed by the media. In Flash butoh meets hip-hop, they try out each other’s language, and discover their commonalities, personally and culturally. It opens with projections of family photos of the boys from childhood to adulthood.  Physically they couldn’t be more opposite — the heavy set black man with a football player’s girth wearing a hoody, and the tall slender, bald Japanese man in headscarf and sneakers. It is a brilliant duet fueled by the kind of black music everyone has grown up with from soul to funk to Prince and Jimmy Scott singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” at the end. They voice their discomforts, confront them and work it through. They exchange their cultural forms showing each other moves, and finding the similarities. They step into each other’s bodies and return renewed. They surprise us and themselves, and touch us with their humor and vulnerablity. It is a first time collaboration for two remarkable artists, and holds exciting possibilities for the future.

The final piece Soil  seemed like it could have been a separate work, with its more literal  narrative voice and visual style. Choreographed, written, and performed by  Chey Chankethya, Nguyen Nguyen, Waewdao Sirisook, with original music by Imanishi Reiko, and Ishohata Shinichi, Soil  told three cultural stories of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand using objects and ritual with accompanying songs and texts in their languages. Two women and one man prepare food, dance, tell stories, change clothes on three separate mats. They change places, play out roles, as they try to reconcile tradition with contemporary western culture and their complex relationships to it and each other. We are reminded of our place in that history by a soundtrack of sirens, screams, gunfire, and bombs exploding. The performers move through the complexities of identity, of belonging and displacement, and of what is lost and found.

At the end of this very full evening we are left to ponder on the content and meaning of our own beingness.

The Empty Room
June 1 & 2, 2012
 Highways Performance Space @ the 18th Street Arts Center

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