“O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
– W.B. Yeats (from the poem Among School Children)
Just before the holidays I learned of the death of Abel Coelho, Antioch College class of 2004, and these lines from Yeats came to mind.
Abel had performed at the College only a month before in what I considered a truly remarkable program of Japanese theater, contemporary dance, and music. Afterwards I remember thinking how in its entirety, the different performances and performers were unboxing traditional cultural forms through innovative reframing, sampling, and mixing. These translations, re-interpretations, and innovatory works were thoughtfully and respectfully done and at an extraordinary level of artistry. It made me happy, hopeful, and pleased to experience them on Antioch College’s campus, a place that has witnessed great and memorable theater over the years.
Those feelings were still fresh with me when the sad and surprising news of Abel’s passing arrived in an email. He had been living in Kyoto with his wife, who had left him sleeping peacefully in bed when she headed off to work. That is how she found him later in the day when she returned home.
Abel had studied dance and theater (focusing on lighting) at Antioch. He had gone to Japan to study the avant-garde genre, Butoh, which had developed in the 1950’s in the post-war and nuclear-threatened world, during a time in which many elements of traditional Japanese culture were being challenged to reform and even indicted for the consequences of the war and Japanese militarism itself. While in Japan, Abel established a co-op that is still running today; upon returning to Antioch, he designed and performed, according to Eric Miller, “one of the most memorable senior projects” in the school’s recent history. Before his visit in November, Abel had returned to the College one other time after graduating. Apparently, his performance then was also memorable.
After graduating from Antioch, Abel deepened his practice of dance and theater, teaching workshops and classes and completing an MFA in Traditional Asian Theater at the University of Hawaii. His own choreographies were performed internationally and, based in Japan, he was a leading force for the founding of the world’s first and only Butoh-dedicated theater, the Kyoto Butoh-Kan. This month Abel was planning to join the award winning composer, Keiko Fujiie (who had collaborated with him and other Butoh dancers at Antioch) in Barcelona on a new project. The two had also been in conversation about a return performance at Antioch College to celebrate Earth Day in April 2018, perhaps with Fujiie’s composition, “Wilderness Mute,” a chamber and choral piece about the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That event is still being planned; of course, not with Abel, but with his unmistakable influences and spirit, to be sure.
As for his performance at Antioch this past fall, it was, I realize now, virtuosic. Accompanied on piano by Keiko Fujiie, it took place on the bare stage of the Foundry Theater lit (no doubt by Abel) to use the darkness as a screen on which beams of light might render the invisible visible and then make it vanish in movement, reemerging somewhere else. Bare feet, limbs, hands, eyes, cheeks, jutting jaw, lips, teeth—a chiaroscuro of dance, music, and text shaped around Hamlet’s soliloquy, interspersed in Japanese and English, an articulation of something very new and, for me, full of hope.
Louise Smith, Antioch College Professor of Performance, introduced the performers and program that night. She had been Abel’s teacher back in the day and one could feel clearly the love and pride she shared for her student. It was she who wrote with word about his dying.
“Abel was a very special person whose life had challenges that art helped him to transcend. His work as a performer came from a deep place.”
In the last lines of his poem Among School Children, Yeats asks us to ponder how we might make sense or know a part of something without regard to its whole:
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Those who had the great pleasure to have watched Abel Coelho dance and practice life creatively might suspect as I do that there were no dualities when it came to his art. His search was for unities and we benefited from his journey with us.
I want to end this New Year’s Lines of Thinking with a poem that I dedicate to Abel:
landing on the untouched snow,
A solid black spot on a blank page.
Then the other,
landing above on a bare tree branch,
Another glyph; two inky ideograms
forming a sentence with the lone tree,
a complete, eloquent thought
about experiencing emptiness and fullness
In the same moment,
In the same silence.
For Abel Coelho ’04, January 1, 2018
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.