Carole McCurdy is a Chicago-based artist whose work addresses grief and anxiety, duty and resistance, and the absurd mysteries of embodiment. She received a 2016 Lab Artist award from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and was a Fall 2016 Sponsored Artist at High Concept Laboratories. She created and directed an ensemble piece, Waver, with support from CDF, HCL, and 3Arts Chicago. She’s been privileged to study with many masters of butoh dance, including Natsu Nakajima and Yoshito Ohno, and also with great teachers of Argentine tango. She has performed at spaces including the Chicago Cultural Center, Epiphany Dance, Links Hall, Hamlin Park, High Concept Laboratories, Defibrillator Gallery, and Movement Research (NY). In 2014 she danced under viaducts in downtown Chicago and then toured Indonesia with Nicole LeGette’s blushing poppy Dance Club. In 2008–09 she was awarded a six-month artistic residency at Links Hall, where she created and showed her ensemble piece Alas. For Redmoon Theater’s 2006 Twilight Orchard event in Columbus Park, she created A Cure for Scurvy, a performance installation one reviewer described as “an example of the way dread can be created virtually out of thin air.”
“Just listen to your body,” they all say. Pfffft. When I can bear to, I listen.
I listen, but I can’t pretend to understand what my body is saying. Its language doesn’t translate and seems open to interpretation. Even distinctions about pleasure versus pain can seem diaphanous and overlapping.
And then, if I listen again to the world that tells me to listen to my body, that world tells me some things are good for my body and other things are bad for it—but with so many voices speaking up for my body, the goods and bads sometimes get jumbled. I find myself in a wide (comfortably uncomfortable) zone of incomprehension and confusion.
As a movement practice and performance philosophy, butoh offers me ideas about how to work within this wide zone of incomprehension and confusion. I use it as an exemplar of how to make things very specific and yet avoid labeling them too clearly in the process. (Paul Valery said: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”) Whether or not I should call my work butoh seems an open question, while I must acknowledge the influence of butoh artists who’ve taught and inspired me.
Angel or demon? Toddling infant or mischievous ghost? Fairy princess or crotch-clutching crone? Charming or repellent? Winner or loser?
When I work on a performance, I’d like the anwers to be yes to all of the above. I worked as a copy editor for many years, striving to be correct, seeking out dualities and definitions. But in my visual and performance work I struggle to overcome my rigid habits of thought and vision, to visit my areas of limitation and see what expanses of freedom might be found there.
I discover certain meanings in my works while making them, driven by intention and curiosity. But then when the works have been shown, I have had the generous help of an audience: I look back at them and see other possible meanings, sometimes quite different from what I may have thought I meant. I’m satisfied to note when the work goes beyond me and my attempts at control.
I began performing at age 41, in 2004, the year my mother died. I believe the work I do now owes much to the love, grief, relief, and strange enmeshment of that moment. It clearly owes much to Nicole LeGette, who was then teaching butoh classes at a studio called Spare Room in Chicago. I saw this art form as a way to physically manifest and process the things that were beyond words and categories. I had already been dancing Argentine tango for many years, and loved the way its music and techniques can embrace the darker aspects of life, love, and human folly.
The first butoh performance I saw was in New York in 1984 or 1985. I was dating a guy in a hardcore punk band called Damage, and they played accompaniment in the East Village for Poppo Shiraishi and his Gogo Boys. The Gogo Boys, all female, wore gold body paint and little else. They were a chorus line for Poppo as featured performer. It was a glorious, noisy spectacle, and that’s about all I recall.
When I bumbled into butoh again, it was with some few notions and tastes regarding experimental performance but little sense of how I might use myself—my body, presence, voice, vision—to make art as a performer. The explorations of the past decade have offered up a number of ideas and options, and I rummage through them with excitement, sometimes with trepidation, sometimes with abandon. But despite my age I’m still new at this: I must keep learning and exploring or I’ll stall and stagnate.
Every so often I run into a much-quoted definition of butoh from its founding artist, Tatsumi Hijikata: “A corpse standing straight up in a desperate bid for life.” To me it actually captures something that all genres seek: transcendence of time, body, mortality; an acknowledgment of the uncanny despite all reason.
Medicine, morbidity, and mortality have been recurring themes in my work. I’m the only child of older parents. My mother was an M.D., a cheerful depressive, a mischling survivor of Europe’s events 1917–1951. My father was a peacenik biology teacher who, after a stroke, went from a quad cane to a walker to a wheelchair. We all adored one another, and they taught me much about how to confuse love and care. I’m convinced this confusion flavors my work, but I prefer not to measure it too neatly. Starting in 2008, my cancer experiences (breast cancer surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, then thyroid cancer and more surgery and medication) served as strong motivation to make the work now, even while life was a hot mess. Now I’m cancer-free, my life is still a hot mess, and I struggle to understand my motivations. I tell myself that I must make good use of this doubt, dance a tango with it, affectionately pressing forward against it to arrive at new work that goes deeper or farther. We’ll see.