Review: Habitus of Concrete Flesh

Review by Jonathan O’Brien. The thing with Butoh, and the thing with presenting Butoh as part of something like Anywhere Festival, is that it’s fundamentally difficult to understand, particularly within an Australian context. It’s a Japanese-founded form of dance theatre that operates as a sort of learned language of expression—a language most people don’t know. […]

Review by Jonathan O’Brien.

The thing with Butoh, and the thing with presenting Butoh as part of something like Anywhere Festival, is that it’s fundamentally difficult to understand, particularly within an Australian context. It’s a Japanese-founded form of dance theatre that operates as a sort of learned language of expression—a language most people don’t know. This mystery, I suppose, is a large part of the form’s appeal.

Habitus of Concrete Flesh is not only a site-specific Butoh show, but is also an immersive Butoh show with a name like Habitus of Concrete Flesh. In terms of how Theatre of Thunder went about presenting this as a whole, the performance comes across as pretty inaccessible—which for an Anywhere Festival show is exciting in ways that something like a restaging of Shakespeare could never be.

Before Habitus begins you’re asked to take your shoes off, and you’re handed a small cup of trademark bitter green tea, both of which are rituals rooted in Japanese tradition. This is all part of the cultural background of the Butoh language which the audience is only able to glance for a moment, and is barely able to make sense of the meaning that may be attached to any particular part of the ritual—and this statement extends also to the show itself.

Not that any of it necessarily needs to be made sense of. Theatre is primarily about experience, and it’s okay that we don’t know exactly what the backwards-cricked extra limbs and hands on the costumes of the two Butoh performers (Marisa Georgiou, Megan Janet White)—juxtaposed with the distorted birdcalls of Luke Jaaniste’s electronic soundtrack—are meant to represent. And in an ideal version of the production, all we would need to be satisfied as audience members would be the unsettling feelings of the costumes that wrap the performers and extend their movements.

But that’s in an ideal world. While it’s true that an absence of decipherable meaning can be okay, it can become a serious issue when the audience is forced to spend too long with the same amount of stimulus. And that’s Habitus’s biggest downfall—its runtime outlasts how novel it is. When you are in either of the two rooms containing each act, sat on a couch or on the floor, it feels like you’re there for too long. Ninety minutes is a long time to watch anything live, and a performance free of dialogue and clear narrative has to entice its audience—especially if it’s going to run as long as this. So while Habitus is rhythmic and cyclical and expansive—but this leaves it repetitive, which would be okay, if it didn’t for the most part fail to build tension. And even though after the fact, and after thinking about the work, I’m left with distinct and valuable imagery and feelings, I don’t know if it necessarily justifies the show’s ninety-minute runtime.

This raises an interesting point, though, about the experience of a work versus the experience of thinking about it.

Because I actually feel quite positive about Habitus. I look back on it as an experience I enjoyed. I think of the key moments: the destructive collapse of the upstairs set during the first act; the first time the piano was hit with a wooden beam during the second, and how it made a slightly different set of sounds each successive time the performers slammed against it. I remember the tense performative gazes of Luke Jaaniste and James Scott as they stared straight at the piano while it emitted a deathly and ominous noise that I recall keeping me on-edge.

But I know also that I wasn’t on-edge for the whole of the act with the piano, and I know that the first act’s set’s destruction only held my interest for a short period of time even though it took a longer time than my attention span to truly fall apart. I know for a fact I was restless and not at all immersed for a large chunk of the show’s runtime.

And yet, the memories and feelings the show left with me are still strong and meaningful in my head. I’m led to wonder: is the strength of this impression a direct result of the show’s repetitive nature? Is the set of reasons I didn’t really enjoy watching Habitus of Concrete Flesh the same set of reasons for why I like it in hindsight?

A large part of me still believes that Theatre of Thunder’s latest show is too long, and yet—would it have affected me at all if it were any shorter?

You can purchase your tickets to Habitus of Concrete Flesh here.

This review is based on the reviewer’s experience of the opening night performance on May 4.

Full disclaimer: The reviewer is friends with and has facilitated works by members of Theatre of Thunder in the past.