On the Coast Starlight train from Seattle to Portland, there is a lounge car with floor-to-ceiling windows and an old docent, with bushes of hair in his ears, who talks into a microphone. He recites historical stories and facts: the size of local octopuses ("nearly eight feet long"), how many people died when Mount St. Helens exploded ("58—that we know of"), and the founding of Auburn (it was originally called "Slaughter," after William Slaughter; its main hotel was "The Slaughter House").
Some of the passengers in the lounge car are headed for the annual Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival in Portland—one week and two weekends of dance, music, and theater—curated by Mark Russell, the sometime, longtime artistic director of P.S. 122 in New York. Since it happens in early fall, TBA is a good place to see performances that will come to Seattle later—there are shows by Young Jean Lee (theater, New York), Hand2Mouth (spectacle, Portland), Zoe Scofield (dance, Seattle), Elevator Repair Service (a six-hour performance of The Great Gatsby, New York). All of those shows will come to On the Boards this season (Elevator Repair Service comes to OtB this weekend, see page 37). All of those shows contain at least one death.
Perhaps because some of us in the lounge car are headed to a performance art festival, perhaps because of all this death talk from the old man with bushes of hair in his ears, the conversation turns to Sankai Juku, a butoh company invited by On the Boards to do a piece in Seattle on September 10, 1985.
The Sankai Juku piece involved dancers hanging from ropes, each person beginning in the fetal position and slowly opening, then slowly closing. They did it in Pioneer Square, at lunchtime, for people working in nearby offices. Four dancers were lowered by their ankles down the side of the Mutual Life Insurance building. Then, horribly, one of the ropes broke and Yoshiyuki Takada fell six stories onto the sidewalk.
Butoh started in Japan after WWII and its first performance involved a young man strangling a live chicken between his thighs. It has always been about death. The performers wear white paint, white powder, and ash. The docent, creepily, is still talking about Mount St. Helens: "Spirit Lake was literally turned upside down... the trees were literally blown off their roots." He says nobody knows how many people died because it was summer and there were a lot of campers—campers who could still be lost. We watch our reflections in the window, imagining that mountain of ash.