'The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai' Is An Unlikely Mashup

A scene from The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai (Photo: Orpheas-Emirzas)

In our mashup-obsessed era, it’s hard to rise above the noise of Frankenstein-like creations like Pulpy Days (a combination of the noirish Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction and the feel-good Happy Days TV series) or ALF channeling Eminem. But the modish choreographer Trajal Harrell has created a mashup that pretty much tops this stuff with his latest dance theater work.

In The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, Harrell smooshes together the aesthetics and careers of a pair of iconoclastic performance artists, both of them incredibly influential yet mostly obscure to American audiences: venerable butoh dance pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata and experimental French choreographer Dominique Bagouet.

Hijikata created the out-there performance artform known as butoh in the west in the 1960s with Ohno Kazuo. A staple of Japanese culture today, butoh pushes the human body to extremes through grotesque imagery and taboo themes. Oh, and butoh artists look even more freakish to unattuned audiences because they traditionally cover their bodies entirely in white makeup and move painfully slowly.

Bagouet founded the Centre Choreographique Languedoc- Roussillon in Montpellier in 1980. There, he produced important dance pieces like Insaisies and Fantasia Semplice, which placed extreme physical demands on his dancers. He died very young, at 41, of AIDS.

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Harrell’s 90-minute piece, which gets a local airing this weekend at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Playhouse, involves seven dancers and Harrell’s signature blend of styles that range from contemporary ballet to voguing. And The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai is like a hall of mirrors, where you can’t tell where the real ends and the fake begins: Is Bagouet making a piece about Hijikata? Or Hijikata making a piece as Bagouet? Or Harrell making a piece about both? Or neither? Or all of the above?

The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai plays at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Playhouse on Friday, Mar. 18 and Saturday, Mar. 19. For tickets and information visit calperformances.org.

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