For last year’s performance of City/Escape, the members of Marianne Kim’s butoh-inspired dance workshop alternately crept and sprinted east down Randolph Street from the Chicago Cultural Center to Daley Bicentennial Plaza. Wearing red thrift-store costumes and white body paint and twisting themselves into contorted shapes, the dancers were accompanied by Kim, who carried a boom box. “One homeless guy danced with us,” says one of the performers, “while people were screaming from cars and wondering what we were doing.”

“It’s a very visual dance form that’s intensely physical in a non-Western way,” explains Kim, a former member of Xsight! Performance Group and an MFA candidate at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. “Butoh is not looking for idealized shapes and perfection of form. It’s more interested in irregularity, and is constantly challenging what we’re perceiving of as beauty in dance and in life.”

“It’s not just a physical technique,” says Nicole LeGette, a movement-based performance artist with training in classical Indian dance who’s returned for her second workshop with Kim. “It’s really how to let the entire body, mind, and energy focus on a certain image or idea. That is far more interesting to me than how high I can kick my leg.”

Kim has been hooked on the avant-garde Japanese dance form ever since she saw choreographer Natsu Nakajima perform at Randolph Street Gallery in 1993; since 1997 she’s been leading workshops in butoh techniques through Hedwig Dances, where she studied under master butoh artist Kaja Overstreet. Each of her workshops zeros in on a theme–last year’s improvisations were meant to explore the tension between the city and the natural environment. This year, says Kim, “We were talking about fractal geometry, and I also mentioned to them the idea of identity being fractured. Having all women in the workshop, we were investigating the identity of the female body.”

Though some of the 11 dancers have formal training, others do not–their movements, Kim says, “can be more raw and oftentimes a little more honest.” Over the last several weeks the participants have done strength-training exercises and improv using the slow, awkward movements and strenuous–almost violent–bursts of activity that typify butoh. One workshop exercise that they’re trying to incorporate into this year’s piece, Fractal, involves starting from a standing position and then throwing themselves to the ground to jerkily move across the floor as though pulled by strings attached to various body parts. LeGette says it’s like figuring out how to “break down and rebuild the body.”

For Fractal, each dancer will wear a white bra and underpants, white body paint, a bright red pageboy wig, and white high heels–the last “to see what we can do with them,” says Kim. “Can we be really physically aggressive and stereotypically masculine while we’re in them? Can we roll around and throw ourselves on the ground and have this physical experiment without killing ourselves?

“Other than someone’s shoes falling off, there haven’t been any injuries so far.”

Fractal, featuring an original score by Kurt Niesman and Ryan Rapsys, will be performed Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17, at 8 in the dance studio at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington (773-871-0872). Admission is $5. The group will perform again Thursday, August 22, at 7:30 at the free “E3: My Reality” event held in conjunction with the Cultural Center’s exhibition “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation.” It starts at 7 in the fourth-floor gallery with a guided tour of the exhibit and a discussion; at 8 there will be sound and video art performances by Calliope Sol, Nano, and Koutaro Fukui (312-744-6630).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.