In his latest outing, butoh maverick Shinichi Iova-Koga put himself under the powerful spell of Nanos Operetta and its director Ali Tabatabai, along with dramaturge Ellen Sebastian Chang, to create Our Breath Is As Thin As A Hummingbird’s Spine. Performing in July with long-time Bay Area actor Sten Rudstrom, and backed by the adept seven-member music ensemble, Iova-Koga and his collaborators produced a touching if unrealized surrealist cartoon about unrequited love of a man for a bird.
This was a light year from Iova-Koga’s solo winter show, Milk Traces, in which he worked alone in a tiny black box theater, presenting spare butoh with a furious intensity that seemed to float in a pool of quiet. It was also a big break from his spellbinding all-white duet in 2004 Ame to Ame, where relationships and objects were both acutely abstract and audibly physical. This time the comedic ruled, and narrative became a series of sometimes-delightful gags and absurd juxtapositions that, although offbeat, were unable to establish the kind of poetic depth that has distinguished Iova-Koga’s work in the past. Whether due to divergent methods and aesthetics among the team, or too little time, the result was a production that seemed still in workshop phase, ripe for a huge shove into far more illogical and less comic book terrain.
With the versatile and imaginative band backed against the theater’s brick wall and made spectral by a scrim, the concert began with salted whiskey baritone Nyls Frykdahl (of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum renown) in faintly Dickensian rust colored morning coat and top hat, crooning into his mike a rococo tale of unexpected love. Next, Iova-Koga took charge of the proceedings as he emerged from a squinchy fairytale door (marked “door”). He was dressed in a pulsing red lounge suit and shirt bedecked in gold glitter. The Lounge Lizard get-up was apt costume for a man about to fall in love with a skinny, cool-hearted and red-legged bird. Less than 10 feet away, out of a huge nest (labeled “nest”) on a platform, a ball of lemon-yellow feathers emerged until it revealed itself to be as big as Big Bird but even stranger looking, like a giant feathery yellow fruit on top of two ridiculously thin red sticks.
It’s at this point that I should disclose that I was given a canary songster as a gift quite recently, and as I watched Hummingbird, I experienced an eerie sense that the production was channeling my life with my new friend. Since I hadn’t read the program beforehand, I was abashed to see myself in the story. Critics shouldn’t do that. But during intermission I read the notes: Operetta’s Tabatabai, like me, had tripped into a deep love for his pet, a sentient ball of feathers in a cage. Soon enough he found that no matter how loving or entertaining he was, his depth of feelings weren’t met in the slightest, a role Iova-Koga played with exquisite tenderness and comedy, whether it was performing a liquidy dance of yearning, a series of entertainments with a branch (golfer, batter, dog, paddler), a goofy chicken dance, or lip syncing “You Are my Destiny” (Paul Anka). But there’s another story to bird love. Avian sentience is strange and delicate and to find any communion one may have to enter bird mind. What a ripe path for butoh to travel.
But that’s not where Hummingbird ventured. Well into the production, Rudstrom cut then devoured the string that tied together the tin can phones that were meant to connect the two creatures across their animal and existential divide. It then became even clearer that if the bird—or any solipsist, for that matter—could talk intelligibly about its state, it would probably echo Tina Turner and ask: “What’s love got to do with it?” This made crystalline that interspecies love was really the pretext, not the point of this cracked fairy tale about love. What was this “pet,” after all, but a blazing narcissist in feathers happier to preen in his bed before a mirror than commune with a companion, which sounds like plenty of people plenty of us know. The team never quite sorted these facts.
One of the moments when Iova-Koga came close to taking the story into more layered terrain is when he accepted a beribboned box and out of an egg-shaped package he made materialize a female blow-up doll with B-29 breasts. Then he taped feathers on her arms. But committed too literally to the bird tale, Hummingbird lost its drift. And as welcomed as his voice was, it was unclear why the captivating Frykdahl kept popping up when he did, darkly singing hurdy-gurdy songs (“Lulu, for us the moon is too high. A spoon on the table is a star in the sky.”). Such episodes neither deepened the mystery nor injected a big enough dose of helium into the atmosphere.
But even with its flaws, Hummingbird was valiant and madcap. And it reminded us that butoh is a large Dadaist container capable of holding all kinds of material dredged up from the wild recesses of our hearts, our homes and our cages.