Under the Bottle Tree

The latest collaboration between trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and choreographer Oguri

A Japanese butoh master and a free-jazz trumpeter seem like an incongruous fit, but the dark and turgid “freedom music” of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Oguri’s strenuous dances of confusion and deliverance both tackle fundamental human emotions in unapologetically abstract terms. Their latest collaboration NOTAWAY: Quest For Freedom, a loose reimagining of the river journey taken by Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and escaped slave Jim — part of a three-night stand at Venice’s groovy-crunchy Electric Lodge last weekend — brought this to an almost exhausting level.

Save for a slow prelude where they crouched in the dark like snipers in the weeds, the dancers – who included Oguri and fellow Body Weather artist Yasunari Tamai — were in almost constant exertion underneath a large facsimile of a Southern “bottle tree” for the two-hour performance. Butoh is an intense and often confrontational dance style that emerged from a Japan devastated by WWII. It is as grueling to perform as it is to watch: A series of slo-mo friezes, angular stretches and mannequin-like poses. (Call it “extreme voguing.”) By the end, both men’s white tunics were darkened with sweat; the two of them alone must have driven the heat index in the space up to steam-bath levels.

Smith, dressed in a rumpled cream-colored suit, brought his Golden Quartet — pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Pheeroan akLaff — for an equally strenuous four-part suite that accompanied the dancers. There wasn’t rhythm or pulse to latch onto. Smith kept the drums and bass under tight wraps to provide a tinge of unrelieved tension save for Lindberg skittering his bow up his strings, creating the sound of tiny electrical surges. The only source of melody came in starts and stops from Smith and Davis — mirroring Huck and Jim’s journey between servitude and freedom – which was anchored by Smith’s distress-siren, a piercing sound in the small theater. A couple of Zen moments saw the band stopping entirely while the only sounds were the clicking floorboards under the dancers’ feet.

Perhaps juiced by the physicality on display, Smith, who usually wanders on the edges of his own bands, directed his quartet with great sweeps and chops of his hand, occasionally yelling out “Hyahhhh!” and even wandering over to sit on Davis’ piano bench while both men interplayed. At the end, Oguri and Tamai wandered back into the dark, arm in arm, as the last touch of the cymbal seemed to linger for a Buddhist moment. Meaning, forever.

Visiting Artist Colloquium at CalArts: Oguri and Wadada Leo Smith from CalArts on Vimeo.