10 questions: Matthew Romantini

1) What the fuck is going on?
Well, I just returned from a week in Prague, followed by 24 hours in London. I went to Prague to attend the Quadrennial, which was totally fascinating, and I kept randomly running into people I knew. None of the picutres of any of the exhibits turned out, unfortunately. Good thing it was all so memorable.

I’m teaching butoh classes at the Creative Children’s Dance Centre studio, am in the midst of creating a dance piece called Avatars/Ratavas with Lucy Rupert of Blue Ceiling Dance, and in August I’m going to be playing a tarantella-dancing marconi officer on the Titanic in Theatre Rusticle’s April 14, 1912.

Mostly I’m avoiding writing grant applications, and generally revelling in being in Toronto for the summer, which means easy access to my dad, my best friend (Christine Horne) and my favourite café (Dessert Trends).

2) What is butoh?
Butoh is a post-War Japanese dance-theatre form. Its founders, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, felt that there was no discipline that could encompass their reaction to having two atomic bombs dropped on their country. Butoh is influenced by many different forms – German Expressionist dance, grotesque Medieval Japanese woodcuts, and the writings of Yukio Mishima among them, and is said to be born of the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hijikata especially focused on the juxtaposition of horrific and sublime imagery, on placing the body in crisis and on highlighting “ma,” the space between events. All of these characteristics culminate to create a dance form which strives to transform time and space for both its practitioners and its audiences.

For me, butoh expresses the general state of terror in which I’ve found myself in the last few years. I became interested in butoh soon after 9/11 and that has deepend as our culture has blithely careened further and further along a highly destructive path. Immediately after 9/11, I got very frustrated at seeing a constant barrage of lukewarm, three-star, polite-applause performances. It was so surreal to go to the theatre and feel that it was in a state of aggressive denial about world events. Seeing butoh in this context was such a relief. It named and explored my own outlook. There was an immediate and persistent kinship with the form.

3) Ideally, what new insights into their craft would you like stage actors to come away from your butoh workshops with?
Well, first, I hope that not only stage actors will come to my class. I think butoh is useful for artists of all disciplines, as well as the general public. For actors working in any medium though, a butoh class offers a chance to explore imagery as a creative tool. The work is physically challenging (the good old body in crisis), but it also involves a sustained use of myriad images. It is an exercise in mental and creative multitasking to try to hold 15 images in the body simultaneously. Developing this kind of mental, psychological and emotional dexterity, in concert with challenging physicality is pretty exciting to me as an actor. Coordination, physical control and a rock-hard ass are good fringe benefits too.

4) Do you make any clear distinctions between theatre and dance?
Less and less. They used to be clearly delimited by a focus on the body or the text. However, as I delve into more physical theatre, and dance that includes the voice in some way, these distinctions become less relevant. Someone once said to me that artists are nomads between disciplines, and that the concept of a piece should dictate its form. I like this a lot, and it jives nicely with a directive we built into The Thistle Project that the style of a piece we create should do honour to its source material.

I also believe that butoh exists in other art forms. I consider Kieren MacMillan to be a butoh composer for example, or Tilda Swinton to be a butoh film actor. So what does that say about the exclusivity of the discipline? Ronya Lake, a friend and dance colleague of mine in Vancouver, is rehearsing a piece right now in which she will be digging up sand with her bare hands, on a beach, in front of a sand castle, by the ocean, while 20 paper boats float by. The piece is going to be kick-ass, and it’s going to be butoh, for sure, but there will be no discernable “dance” in it anywhere. Faced with work like that, questions about the discreteness of disciplines become irrelevant.

5) How important is it for theatre artists to be out there seeing lots of shows?
Oh lordy loo. You can’t not do it. Whether you spent three years in a theatre program or not, going to shows acts as a major training ground for a young artist. And as you become more established, I think it prevents you from getting too complacent about your own work. Seeing shows is the only thing that can hone your aesthetic; the only stage on which it’s possible to really test and challenge folks like Judith Butler and Richard Schechner.

I find that sitting in the audience has clarified my artistic goals more than acting on the stage itself. I am, though, an engaged audience member. I attend to a performance so actively that it can cause involuntary spasms and vocalizations. Going to shows MUST be about engaging with the piece on all levels. I also think it’s important to go outside your own discipline. It’s too easy to become enamored of a particular methodology when the creative process in theatre, dance, visual arts, music, media arts and design could be enriched by a little cross-pollination.

Lucy Rupert and Matthew Romantini.

6) In making theatre in both Vancouver and Toronto, have you noticed any distinct similarities or differences in the way work gets made in the two cities?
From what I can tell, the processes are very similar. Some choreographers and directors in Vancouver are interested in setting pieces on their performers, while others want to create with them. Same here.

Honestly, I notice greater differences among individual artists in both cities than between the cities, if we’re talking about approach. One thing I do notice though is a greater range in the work ethic in Vancouver. In Toronto, it seems that everyone is working reasonably hard, putting up shows, going to auditions or whatever they’re pursuing. In Vancouver, however, I notice people who talk a LOT about what they’re going to do and never actually do it (this is kind of a cliché), but also people in both theatre and in dance who are completely ferocious in a way that I almost never see in Toronto. Kokoro Dance is like that, and so is Screaming Flea Theatre, to name a couple.

7) Have you learned anything about your mind or body through dance that you wish you could pass along to people who don’t dance?
You can do it! Dancing can put so much physical stress on the practitioner, but the body is waaaaaaaaaaay more resilient than the mind lets us believe, and it’s only discipline that will set you free. Go to class no matter what. It makes everything better. Madness, mayhem, death, and the earth shattering beneath your feet are all cured by a modern class with Barbara Bourget.

8) Are there any new stories being told?
No. The most recent new stuff got said by Ionesco, I think. Let’s just honestly react to the subject matter the world is throwing at us, and let future generations worry about whether our work is revolutionary or not. The surest way to create boring, annoying work is to obsess about its novelty.

9) What’s happening with The Thistle Project these days?
I’m avoiding writing grant applications. We’ve had a series of meetings with Erika Batdorf about the next piece, and we’ve hit on it. We’re going to do Peer Gynt. With two people. We’re giving ourselves a long creation process and will produce it in the spring of 2009. I can’t wait. At this point, it’s Christine playing Peer and Sölveig, and me playing everyone else. Video, dance, text, and maybe a puppet or two. It’s going to be spectacular.

10) What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
Seriousness and silliness don’t preclude one another. My father means well. Write down your grandparents’ stories. Lift with your legs, not your back.

Notice: Butoh classes in Toronto

Photo by Yukiko Onley.

The Thistle Project’s Matthew Romantini is hosting butoh classes starting this Thursday, July 12:

“Butoh is a serene and brutal post-WWII aesthetic originating in Japan that redefines time and space by rejecting premeditated outward forms and tapping into imagery drawn from the subconscious. For those of you who saw Gorey Story, we used butoh as one of the techniques to build that show.”

butoh class with Matthew Romantini:
At The Creative Children’s Dance Centre
2968 Dundas Street West
Thursday evenings
7.00pm – 8.30 pm
$15/class or $60 for a five-class card

Contact Matthew by phone at 647.834.1936
or e-mail him at matthew@thistleproject.ca