TV REVIEW : ‘Darkness’ Airs on KCET Tonight

Times Dance Writer

More than a documentary, Edin Velez’s “Dance of Darkness” is an act of submission: an attempt by a distinguished Puerto Rican video maker to immerse himself and the viewer in a completely alien vision. Brilliantly shot and edited, the invaluable (if problematic) hourlong telecast will be seen tonight at 11 on KCET Channel 28.

Velez’s subject is butoh, the Expressionist dance-theater idiom that evolved in Japan after World War II in violent rebellion against the escalating materialism of that society. And just as the founders of butoh were unsparing in their emphasis on the visceral, so Velez refuses to keep his distance--to allow the audience a safe or comfortable perch to view the profoundly strange and disturbing images he collects.

Archival footage, interview segments and commentary by writer Mark Holborn summarize the historical and philosophical bases of butoh. But through split-screen and multi-image collage, Velez subordinates his talking heads to the grotesque theatricality of the art itself.


Kazuo Ohno and the late Tatsumi Hijikata--the fathers of butoh--are here, along with many of their disciples. But most of the performance footage centers on the oldest butoh company, Akaji Maro’s overpowering Dai Rakuda Kan (seen locally in a UCLA-sponsored engagement two years ago).

Although “Dance of Darkness” wants the viewer to gain a feeling for butoh as much as data about the art, inevitably it falsifies its subject.

For instance, the way butoh redefines theatrical time (its link to the stark Zen world of noh) isn’t even suggested. And Velez’s startling closeups and subjective compression of stage events sometimes make butoh expression seem akin to rock ‘n’ roll excess.

Butoh must be seen in context, Holborn warns us at one point; it “cannot be reduced to exotic spectacle.” If it is performed “center stage” at Lincoln Center, “it will cease to be butoh.”

Perhaps. But is it still butoh when cut to bits on videotape? Or is it merely exotic spectacle? Velez is a genuine artist, but he should be creating full-length butoh videos, not reducing performances to picturesque highlights.

Completing the telecast (part of the “New Television” series): “Karkador,” animator Peter Callas’ clever three-minute juxtaposition of old and new Japan.