Trajal Harrell’s sort-of West Coast Premiere,“The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai,” never really happens according to its choreographer. In fact, it started premiering in 2015 and “still won’t be ready for today’s performance,” announces Harrell from a front row seat in the audience. It also never really begins…but sort of has always existed. Or, so is the impression walking into the Zellerbach Playhouse with the stage fully lit and a spattering of random props casually placed about. On the stage sidelines a sinewy Thibault Lac irreverently does kick splits in traditional Japanese wooden flip flops, clad in a revealing tank top with a schmata attached to his head. He seems to be warming up but then again he could be half way through the complete performance. Even the exposed brightly lit seams of the stage have a hard time defining what is the stage and what isn’t–instantly breaking down the barriers of time and space, logic and absurdity. Within this no man’s land Lac flamboyantly twits about, establishing the entire essence of the refreshingly absurd dance-theater that follows.
For the first 20 minutes, of this 90-minute extravaganza, dancer Perle Palombe and Lac endeavor to set up the impossibly loose and comedic threads that try to hold this “Ghost” together. In a self-conscious, improvisational interview-style they talk on handheld microphones about a mysterious meeting that supposedly took place in a bar in Paris, or was that Los Angeles, or…, between the late choreographers Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of Butoh in Japan, and Dominique Bagouet, founder of danse noveau in France. Interrupting their casual overview is Harrell who seems to be throwing them new information to keep the information arbitrary and in the moment. Upstage, Stephen Thompson begins setting up a playpen of random objects; produce, mechanical butterflies, laundry baskets, blow-up clowns etc. as the audience both wins raffle prizes while trying to catch up to whether or not we should take anything seriously—clearly, not!
Within this playpen of the ridiculous, choreography rolls out like a fashion show catwalk, high-energy dancers prancing across the stage, slinging attitude empty of emotion, elevated on imaginary high heels by strutting on the balls of their feet. Their fashion, imaginative costumes (created by the performers) are thrown together as if designed by a faggot on a Goodwill rampage—petty coat headdresses and trousers for long sleeves. Dancers vogue, seldom interacting but always in spacious flow with each other, to a truly brilliant soundtrack produced by Harrell that is not a fusion of different styles of music but two tracks of opposing music layered and played together, the same way he manipulates Hijikata and Bagouet’s ghosts. The dance appears to manifest from a black hole, from nothing emerges prolific imagery and mind chatter, like the white noise static on an analogue video or TV screen that images interrupt and then disappear. The rich moments of movement or imagery disappear as quickly, and sometimes as tenderly, as they arise. Everything is disposable. Everything is beautiful in its ordinariness and in the simplicity of throwaway choreography and staging.
If you need a defined stage, a linear narrative, a chorus line, something solid, or an orderly universe you won’t find it in “The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai.” But if you can let go and play—this sort-of Butoh is for you.