Living, breathing butoh at Z Space 

click to enlarge Punk-rock dance psychodrama: Bad Unkl Sista premieres “First Breath, Last Breath” at Z Space in The City this weekend. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Punk-rock dance psychodrama: Bad Unkl Sista premieres “First Breath, Last Breath” at Z Space in The City this weekend.

In the post-World War II Japanese dance-psychodrama art form known as butoh, performers transport their audiences to a level of extreme hyper-realism and back to gentle repose: a kind of shock and awe.

Bad Unkl Sista’s choreographer Anastazia Louise brings her unique stamp to the custom in a world premiere titled “First Breath, Last Breath” this weekend on the Z Space stage.

Louise describes butoh as “primordial movement … a kind of punk-rock art form.” It’s a far cry from the traditional children’s dance classes she taught at her mother’s Peoria, Ill., dance studio.

Challenged by severe dyslexia — one difficulty being the perception of directions in time and space — she was unable to teach the more advanced students. Ironically, that “handicap” became a tool allowing her to create outside the comfort zone of many choreographers.

“When I first saw butoh, it cracked my world wide open,” she says. “As performers we get caught in the trap of entertaining the audience, but I’m always looking beyond that ‘ta-da’ moment,” she says.

The concept for “First Breath, Last Breath” was born from an exercise she gives her dancers at the end of each class — to simply walk across the room and look 1,000 years into the future: “That [process] is to me the first breath and the last breath. I wanted to bring specific stories of the moments in between.”

A recurring theme in her work involves the emotional and kinesthetic limits to which she pushes her dancers. “We’re bringing the eye of the storm to the surface. I liken it to [when] a mother bird pushes the baby off the branch so it can learn to let go and fly,” she says. “When we lift the dancer unexpectedly and then set them down, it transforms both them and the audience. The tranquility and sweetness that comes afterward changes the breath of everyone in the audience. We’re mining the energy of the room.”

Louise’s one-of-a-kind couture-level costumes — which have garnered her a following in both theater and fashion — coupled with the rice-paste body “paint” on the dancers’ bodies, invoke images suggesting a cross between “Les Miserables” street urchins, members of an extraterrestrial/Elizabethan court, and Buddhist goddesses.

The score by Goyo Aranaga weaves acoustic and electronic instruments with classical and contemporary music. Performing live with Aranaga will be electronic musician F’kir Eldercake, soprano Julia Hathaway, multi-instrumentalist Connor Jon O’Sullivan, violist Surly and percussionist Daniel Yasmin.


Bad Unkl Sista  

Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday  

Tickets: $35

(800) 838-3006,,

About The Author

Andrea Pflaumer

Andrea Pflaumer

Andrea Pflaumer is a Berkeley-based author and journalist and former dancer who writes dance and arts previews for the San Francisco Examiner. She has just published her first book: Shopping for the Real You.
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