Oxford’s long established butoh dance theatre group Café Reason first showed its  ecologically focused work Tipping Point at the University of Hertfordshire last year, the outcome of this collaborative company’s collective exploration and creative response to “the threats facing our fragile planet”. In January 2020 the company unveiled it in Oxford over two sold out nights, testimony to a solid and sympathetic audience support base, but also to the topical urgency of its theme, increasingly in the public eye as we followed the horrific development of Australia’s bush fires. Corpus Christi College’s Al Jaber auditorium proved an apt setting, its reuse of ancient wall providing a dramatic irregular boundary and contrast to an otherwise technologically functional modern space.

This poetic treatment consisted of seven linked episodes on distinct themes, transforming the bare space with arresting imagery and extravagant costuming.  In the opening section Migration creatures bound in white rags wearily traversed the space in random directions dragging weighty burdens against an emerging sound-world of grunts and gasps.   In Lifeforms these white figures clustered and undulated like sea anemones against a projection of restless underwater life.  Wrap provoked reminiscence of shocking images of sea creatures strangled with plastic detritus.  Two sober dark clad attendants progressively entrapped a central figure shimmering in whisps of white and gold (Ayala Kingsley) in an unrolling mesh of cling-film strands stretched from one side of the stage to the other.  Even their walking pathways gradually took on an awkward intricacy as they clambered over and through the increasing complexity within which their captured victim writhed.

A film interlude, Dorsal, fascinated in its hyper close up focus on a naked back twisting and shifting, morphing from human body to barren landscape with trickling streams of oil black ink.  Then in contrast an ancient processional of gorgeously colourful robed figure Gaia (Fabrizia Verrechia) with kohl darkened eyes smiling and waving, accompanied by singing maidens in red, scattering petals.  Capering suited and masked figures brutally disrupted this dreamy festival of abundance, scattering the handmaidens and wresting the goddess to the ground, emptying black bin bags of a clattering torrent of plastic containers which covered the stage, surrounding the forlorn, diminished but still gesturing Gaia.  Gradually scavengers emerged to pick over the debris for objects of use; the piece ended with Reef, the group rolling and inching forward in painstaking repetitious progress over the crunching plastic to end climbing up the auditorium steps alongside us, reminding us watchers of our complicity.

Working discretely from a sound desk at the back of the stage versatile vocalist Maggie Nicols and violinist Jill Elliott contributed sounds and music of range and sensitivity to build and colour this imaginative world.  Café Reason impress with the theatrical clarity of their surreal narrative and the exuberance of their disguises; more performance art and physical theatre than dance.  Their episodic format, while making for engaging and well-balanced performances, perhaps sometimes evades the deeper investigation and development of expression through movement that butoh can afford.

Susie Crow

24th January 2020

Find out more about Café Reason here