It’s a Friday night in Sarasota, and Keren Shani-Lifrak is in a dance studio off Tuttle Avenue, tucking women’s hair into white vintage swim caps. The women are barefoot, dressed in long black sheaths and tangled up in black netting.
They look weird, though not nearly as weird as they’ll look this Saturday when they perform at the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF), where they’ll be covered in white paint from head to toe — the signature look of a Butoh dancer.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how kids will react,” Shani-Lifrak says, tugging the last of the caps on dancer Angela Rauter’s blond head. “We’re trying to be considerate with the fact that this is a family-friendly performance, even though we’d like it to be more provocative.”
A kind of dance-meets-performance art, Butoh is marked by grotesque, painfully slow contortions, abstract music and unsettling imagery. The dancers are usually only covered in white paint, because costumes are often considered superfluous.
Rooted in post-World War II Japan, the performances began as a way to expose dark or taboo topics by performing esoteric dance moves.
However, in Shani-Lifrak’s case, the inspiration behind what she calls “sprout” — the five-female Butoh dance troupe for which she spent six weeks choreographing dances — comes from a different, more hopeful place.
When you’re seven months pregnant with your second child, it’s hard to be sinister.
“Some people have their mid-life crisis, I have my before-baby crisis,” Shani-Lifrak laughs. “I wanted to do something that would be of meaning to me and to the whole motherhood experience. The beauty of being pregnant and the idea of creating something new appealed to me on two different levels.”
A successful wedding and special-events planner, Shani-Lifrak, 37, grew up studying classical dance in Israel, where she served two years in the Israeli Air Force before moving at 21 to New York City to pursue a career in dancing.
A hamstring injury three years into the move forced her to consider other options.
A member of the Actors’ Equity Association, Shani-Lifrak performed in a few off-Broadway shows and poured herself into experimental dance projects.
A born leader, she transitioned easily into the role of choreographer, getting involved in New York’s DUMBO Arts Festival and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.
For one La MaMa performance, she transformed a moving subway train en route to Coney Island into a traveling carnival, complete with a marching band and fire dancers.
“I’ve always loved finding new boundaries to break,” she says. “In general, I like the idea of creating thought-provoking materials. It’s not that I like shock value, it’s that I like people to leave saying, ‘That’s something I’ve never seen before.’ I love creating things that lead to conversations.”
Before Shani-Lifrak left New York for Sarasota in 2005, she helped create a non-profit arts organization called the Upper Manhattan Arts Project (UMAP), for which she served as artistic director. During her time with the organization, she helped launch the careers of New York’s hottest up-and-coming artists, including violinist/composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, a 2006 Hermitage Artist Retreat fellow, and choreographer Aszure Barton, who appeared at last year’s RIAF.
With her Butoh performance this weekend at RIAF’s Family FunFest, Shani-Lifrak has come full circle.
“It was important to do sprout in Sarasota,” Shani-Lifrak says. “I wanted to push the envelope a little bit and show people that strange can be beautiful, too.”
She walks to the opposite side of the studio and hits “play” on a stereo.
Snarled in black netting, the dancers begin their awkward dance/struggle. With twisted limbs and jerky movements, they engage in a nervous tug-of-war as the music gets faster and less melodic.
As only a Butoh choreographer can, Shani-Lifrak pleads with the women to be ugly, more organic, to stop pointing their toes, to be crumpled and imperfect.
The dancers comply, staring through Shani-Lifrak blank-faced. The effect is haunting, hair-raising. The choreographer squeals with delight.
“I originally pictured myself performing alongside them,” she says, patting her belly. “But I’m not sure I’ll even participate. The dance looks so good without me.”
WHO’S IN SPROUT?
Melissa Lodhi, dance department chairwoman at Booker High School
Alyson Dolan, company member of Fuzión Dance Artists and dance instructor at Booker High School
Caitlin McMullen, who will also perform with New Music New College at RIAF’s Family FunFest
Angela Rauter, company member of Fuzión Dance Artists
Andrea Mihalyffy, costume designer
If You Go
The Ringling International Arts Festival’s Family FunFest is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, in the Ringling courtyard.
Catch performances by New Music New College and Florida Studio Theatre in addition to sprout’s Butoh dance debut.
Sprout will perform at 1:40, 2:40 and 3:40 p.m. during the outdoor festival. For more information, visit www.ringlingartsfestival.org.
GET YOUR TICKETS
Although Mikhail Baryshnikov’s solo performances at the Ringling International Arts Festival sold out months ago, there are still plenty of tickets available to other RIAF shows. Here’s a look at some of the acts that are still up for grabs.
“Hurricane,” by playwright Nilo Cruz
“Opera Baroque,” by The Forman Brothers Theatre
“Space Panorama,” by Andrew Dawson
“Loan Sharking,” by Rubberbanddance Group
“Opening Night,” by Les Slovak
“Gypsy in a Tree,” by Sanda & The Takeishis
Jazz with Kate Davis
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org.