A longtime desire was realized for me this past July, when Robin Lynn Smith asked me to join her in conducting workshops inside the detention facilities we had performed within during the tour of the Freehold Engaged Theatre Program's production of Julius Caesar. I had long wanted to share the essence of my passion, Ankoku Butoh (Dance of Darkness), with incarcerated people and veterans. Butoh dance is a way of delimiting the self by awakening movement through deep focus and visceral transformation. In highly charged situations such as prison and war the person must be embodied and focused, prepared to engage with any danger that arises. This can prove highly stressful, but it can also hone an ability to be present and immediate, to listen deeply and respond authentically in ways the outside culture can distract the rest of us from doing. I knew entering into this experience that I would be more taught than teaching. It was such an honor to share the work I love and the gifts received from dancing with my teacher, Atsushi Takenouchi, that any resistance I perceived did not dissuade me. I saw his face and heard his voice, and felt graced to be able to transmit elements of this dance to these individuals.
In joining Robin Lynn Smith, Daemond Arrindell, Reggie Jackson, Sly Kamara, Sarah Harlett, Lori Evans, Eva Abram, Kirsten McCory, and Trina Harris for these workshops I was also agreeing to be a participant in the acting and writing exercises, as were they. I found myself paired the first evening at Monroe with a small and wiry bookish fellow who chose for our improvisation an ancient god and the first woman he created. I found the encounter sweet and playful, a gift of the saving grace that wild imagination provides for this man. I led the men in a brief movement exploration -- feeling the breath as wind, flying the body, experiencing the waves within -- and there was laughter and uncertainty. One guy exuberantly shouted out "I'm a bird!" another "I'm a surfer!" In that moment we shared the pleasure of the child at play-- a quality many of us bury when very small out of pain and fear. Each time I beheld and felt this sense of play I was reminded of its healing power and also its value for learning and change: the essence of beginner's mind (this is how teachers are paid-- we get to steep in that quality again and again with our students). The joy of resurrecting that openness has been one of the great gifts of butoh for me -- the recovery of our original wonder and curiosity which blasts through the fear of being ridiculed or exploited. This recognizance gave me an understanding when the kids at Echo Glen were hesitant to give over to the butoh imagery I was leading them in exploring... I knew at that long-ago point in my life how hard it would have been to enter into that space. At the same time it was wonderful how impressed the kids were with our performance -- that the intensity and rigor of our dance could strike them so profoundly. One, a young guy who said he stood for original hip hop, asked how long would it to take to get to our level? He said he thought he could do it, and that he would see us out on the road one day. To have my strange and obscure dance affect this kid so much was thrilling!
The rawness of the life experience in these places gets under your skin immediately. I felt feverish and quickened each time we entered a facility. Our time was so concentrated -- rather than a steeping in the practice of acting, or writing, or butoh we were asking them (and ourselves) to throw back undiluted shots. Which they did without flinching. They entered in along with us.
On our second visit to Monroe the guys were beautifully exuberant, horses let out of the stalls into pasture with eager bodies and hungry spirits. I again had a remarkable duet improvisation exploring the mistrust and pain experienced in the long separations these men have from their partners. I was in the body of a woman trying to hold it together alone, frustrated with but still so much in love with her man. How much these people carry inside! We listened to their words about what they fear: Would they get out? How would they live if they got out? We were seared. They have no respite from feeling this fear, they breathe with it day and night. This gauntlet they walk -- if only more people could hear and empathize with these people and see how much they yearn for another way. This remarkable guy who nakedly shared his experience of fear -- of how that was the real deal for all of those men, running through everything -- came up to me afterward and asked about the practice I had led, which evoked waves of wind and water, bearing the flowers that bring life and death, the dead body being carried by loving hands rising, spirit walking into the heart of the sun. He asked about me - was I vegan, did I practice yoga (yes to both) -- immediately understanding that this work I love was also part of a path, a different way to live. We graced each other: me by extending my practice of seeking deep connection to life force in all things through deep attention and care, and he by intuiting the spirit life the dance is a manifestation of.
My teacher calls his dance Jinen butoh. Jinen means All, the energy or life force infusing all things. One of the first practices I danced with Atsushi was the Embrace -- using the mantra of the OM while extending the arms out and drawing into the core of the body, reaching and touching all life and bringing it into oneself, becoming more viscerally part of the All. The embrace does not judge -- it draws into its field the young and the old, the beautiful and the hideous, the joyous and the brutal, the vast and the infinitesimal, the sick and the dying. At last one embraces ones own death, and then experiences oneself embraced in that dying. When I led this practice at the VA hospital center and at the women's prison, I had my heart caught by that vulnerable space of people when they are listening and feeling deeply. This is what I fell in love with from the first yoga class I taught, fourteen years ago. I believe in sharing our work we become empathetic bridges, through visceral connection with others. I felt the whole experience of these workshops was an embrace -- a deep part of me touched and transformed irrevocably by the willing spirits of all whom we worked with. It is palpable how much these individuals desire not only their own healing but want to be sources of healing for others. Like returning vets who dedicate themselves to helping other vets heal and find a valuable life path, these people have the innate capacity to be empathetic bridges for others struggling with hard choices around how to live. Witnessing not only their articulation of their personal struggle, pain and triumph but also their energetic support as they listened to each other (and to us) in the potent writing prompt exercises that Daemond led, I experienced a piercing shimmer of the vision of community that fires our work and life. I am fortunate to have been present.
Vanessa Skantze practices and teaches yoga and butoh dance, and is co-director of Danse Perdue Ankoku Ritual Butoh. She performs regularly in Seattle at alternative venues and at her space Teatro de la Psychomachia in SoDo.
Photos from Freehold's production of Julius Caesar, photo above Sylvester Kamara and Vanessa Skantze and second photo: Vanessa Skantze, Lin Lucas and Jacob "AZ" Squirrel. Photo credits: Kate Gavigan