Butoh, Roman Madzia (Masaryk University in Brno, CZ)
1. The Origins of butoh
The name – „butoh“ – means „dance“ in Japanese, but it came to be used more narrowly in the mid-nineteenth century to refer specifically to recently imported Western dance forms fashionable at that time such as ballet, the foxtrot, and the tango. In the late 1950s, when Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-1986) started his avant-garde dance movement in Tokyo, what we now think of as "Butoh with a capital B“, he adopted the word „butoh“ in order to stress the foreignness of his new dance from native Japanese dance traditions. At the same time, he also wanted to distinguish his new dance from the lightness or brightness characteristic of these imported Western dances. So he added the word ankoku, meaning „deep darkness“ and called his dance ankoku butô meaning „dance of utter darkness.“ In later work, Hijikata continued to subvert conventional notions of dance. Inspired by writers such as Yukio Mishima, Lautréamont, Artaud, Genet and de Sade, he delved into grotesquerie, darkness, and decay. Simultaneously, Hijikata explored the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as animals. He also developed a poetic and surreal choreographic language, butoh-fu (fu means „word“ in Japanese), to help the dancer transform into other materials.
From the start, Hijikata‘s ankoku butô attempted to shatter the complacency of his spectators by placing on stage everything that our modem world required to be hidden from sight because it caused existential discomfort – disease, disability, sexuality, death, and the waste produced from massive material consumption. Whether physically buried in the earth or repressed deep in the human psyche, these banished parts became phantoms that he believed haunted the souls of modern people. By putting what was taboo onto the stage, Hijikata urged people to look at these disowned parts of themselves.
The postwar years in which the aesthetic of ankoku butô first developed were characterized by tremendous social change in Japan. The atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki had revealed that the impossible – utter annihilation – was now possible. The juggernaut of American culture was fast transforming Japanese institutions and lifestyles, and threatening to efface or at least muddle Japan's own heritage. As Japan began to recover from the war and enter a path of economic ascendancy the sense of rupture with the past still remained acute. The ANPO protests at this time were not unlike American anti-war protests of the 1960’s. They were massive and heated demonstrations against the renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that granted the American government use of the military bases throughout Japan.
Butoh was part of this climate of protest. It drew from Surrealism, a movement that cultivated the exploration of fantasies, dreams, and the investigation of the subconscious mind that Freud had pioneered. Butoh was eminently capable of producing evocative dreamscapes as evidenced in the first Butoh performance staged in Tokyo in 1959. Called Kinjiki or Forbidden Colors, it was based on Mishima Yukio‘s novel of the same title. Forbidden Colors dealt with a homoerotic theme and included the strangling of a live chicken on stage over the crotch of a boy, and concluded with the man in pursuit of the boy on a completely darkened stage with only the sounds of running and heavy breathing. According to butoh legend, this shocking performance resulted in half the audience leaving the theater.
2. Hijikata and Ono
To Hijikata‘s dark and powerful charisma, Butoh‘s co-founder – Ono Kazuo (1906) – provided a stark contrast. He brought to the dance the qualities of illumination and tenderness. Through twenty years of collaboration, the two men formed what might be thought of as the yin and yang that constitute the totality of butoh. Incidentally, Ono and Hijikata were both from northern Japan where they had experienced great poverty in their own lives. Hijikata‘s sister, who had been sold into prostitution so that the family could survive, haunted the dancer his entire life. What became one of butoh‘s most typical postures – a bow-legged crouch – was the familiar stance both men had often seen – farmers consumed by hunger and permanently stooped from cropping rice in the fields. Along with this posture were others: slumped, bow-legged, and pigeon-toed.
These wraithlike figures soon filled the butoh stage. But they went beyond being emblems of the rigors and sheer physicality of pre-modem life in Japan. They were attempts to return to a pre-socialized body emptied of habitual movement and therefore open to new creative forms of expression. It is not easy to say which one of these artists is a real founder of butoh. In Jean Viala‘s and Nourit Masson-Sekinea‘s book Shades of Darkness, Kazuo Ohno is regarded as „the soul of butoh,“ while Tatsumi Hijikata is seen as „the architect of butoh.“ Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno later developed their own styles of teaching separate from each other. Students of each style went on to create many different groups such as Sankai Juku, a Japanese dance group well-known to fans in North America.
3. Training and performing process
Butoh training avoids the use of mirrors in the studio since it focuses on practices that induce interior metamorphosis. Dancers learn techniques designed to deconstruct the modern body conditioned by mechanical time and whose scaffolding the illusory atomistic modem self had been built. Hijikata initially tried to recapture the pre-modem Japanese body considered more in tune with the rhythms of nature. He believed that by reliving certain postures the memories encapsulated in them could be reactivated not only in the dancer but resonate into the audience. Most butoh exercises use image work to varying degrees. From the razorblades and insects of Ankoku Butoh, to Dairakudakan‘s threads and water jets, to Seiryukai‘s rod in the body. There is a general trend towards the body as „being moved,“ from an internal or external source, rather than consciously moving a body part. A certain element of control vs. uncontrol is present through many of the exercises. Looked at from completely scientific standpoint, this is rarely possible unless under great duress or pain, but as Kurihara points out, pain, starvation, and sleep deprivation were all part of life under Hijikata's method, which may have helped the dancers access a movement space where the movement cues had terrific power. It is also worth noting that Hijikata‘s movement cues are in general, much more visceral and complicated than anything else since.
Exercises from Japan (with the exception of much of Ohno Kazuo's work) most all have specific body shapes or general postures assigned to them, while almost none of the exercises from Western butoh dancers have specific shapes. This seems to point to a general trend in the West that butoh is not seen as specific movement cues with shapes assigned to them such as Ankoku Butoh or Dairakudakan's technique work, but rather that butoh is a certain state of mind or feeling that influences the body directly or indirectly.
Hijikata did in fact stress feeling through form in his dance, saying, „Life catches up with form“, which in no way suggests that his dance was mere form. Ohno Kazuo, though, comes from the other direction: „Form comes of itself, only insofar as there is a spiritual content to begin with.“
4. Butoh as a way of negotiation with tradition
In conjuring up postures that evoked the past and returning to the darkened pre modern stage that had characterized Kabuki and Noh before the advent of electrical illumination „vulgarized“ the theater reveals the nostalgia at the heart of butoh. However, Butoh’s nostalgia is not regressive but one fed on the widespread popularity of Yanagita Kunio‘s folklore and Origuchi Shinobu‘s ethnology. These fieldworkers, who gathered stories and local customs throughout Japan, managed to foster a new sense of Japanese traditional identity highlighting the country‘s great regional diversity. In butoh, the tangible proof of this resurrected yet fragmentary Japanese identity became the tattered kimono worn by some dancers.
Butoh dipped into the past in order to engage in a subtle conversation or negotiation with tradition. Its yearning for Japan‘s past amounted to an encounter with tradition within the present moment and in this very body. If I am not mistaken, it shares something with the Japanese Buddhist idea of satori – that integrating flash attained when a person comes to the end of logic‘s tether.
The ankoku butô of the 60‘s was an underground dance performed in small theaters in Tokyo. By the 1970‘s butoh had come into its own and resonated with wider currents of nostalgia for the rural and marginal as reintroduced by Yanagita and Origuchi. By the 1980‘s butoh enjoyed an international presence, especially in Europe. Since the 1990‘s indigenous butoh has sprung up in many parts of the world. These new non-Japanese butoh currents are challenging the definition of butoh as a Japanese dance made for a Japanese body type.
While deeply rooted in Japan, from the start Butoh was a robust product of cross- fertilization. Prior to forging the Butoh aesthetic, Hijikata and Ono had studied ballet, German modern dance, and had also been influenced by French mime. Ono studied with Eiguchi Takaya, who had gone to Germany to study with Mary Wigman, one of the great pioneers of German Expressionistic dance. Ono studied also with Baku Ishii a pioneer of Western modern dance in Japan and an important student of Giovarnni Rossi, who had been hired by the Japanese Imperial Theater to teach classical dance and modern ballet. But Ono‘s actual „calling“ as a dancer came while watching the renowned flamenco artist Antonia Mercé in Tokyo. Stunned by her performance, Ono decided on the spot to devote himself to dance. Hijikata, on the other hand, drew inspiration from Western literature. Among his favorite writers were Jean Genet, Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Edgar Allan Poe, and Antoine Artaud.
Although Hijikata passed away in 1986, Ono is still dancing at 100 years old. He dances from his wheelchair now, taking great care to perfect his hand movements. Since there is no ideal body type in a genre such as butoh where dance can only emerge from a deep knowledge of whatever body a person has been given in this life, there is no retirement age in butoh. Today the largest butoh company in Japan is Dairakudakan, but another large butoh company – Sankaijuku – is expatriate and works out of Paris. Carlotta Ikeda has also lived in France since 1978 with her all-female company Ariadone. Renowned dancers such as Pina Bausch in Germany had encountered butoh performers in Paris as early as the 1970‘s. It is safe to say that butoh and Bausch mutually influenced each other at an early stage while both drew from a common source – German expressionistic dance.
Some contemporary Butoh is extravagant and stylized spectacle while other butoh is more like Jerzy Grotowski‘s (1933-99) „Poor Theatre“ with the exterior elements of costume and scenery stripped away in order to focus on the actors, ability to create transformations through the perfection of their craft alone. The core of such performance is the encounter between the spectator and performer.
Hijikata admired the dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) who advocated an end to what he called the „artistic dallying with forms.“ Instead, Artaud said that performers should be like „victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames“. Having witnessed Kabuki during his artistic training, Artaud remarked that: „the Japanese are our masters“. Unfortunately, Artaud did not live to see the birth of butoh although it comes nearest to his own theatrical ideal. While butoh is usually referred to as „dance“, it is better understood as a kind of theater – a theater of the soul. When it is performed sensitively it is like an exorcism that lets the demons within us flow out. It combines what Artaud refers to the „fiery magnetism of image“ with „spiritual therapeutics.“
It is not entirely correct to view butoh as an exotic or even esoteric kind of art though. I suggest to interpret the art of butoh as a parallel to our European carnivals where people often stepped out of their everyday lives and did something unusual to touch the memory of their ancestors. Unfortunately, in Europe these traditions have disappeared almost completely. This is why the contemporary people have lost their touch with their own historical memory and tradition. Thus butoh can be viewed as an attempt to restore the connection of human beings with their own memory and impulses that have been suppresed by social conventions of modern world. Seen this way – butoh has its actuality not only in Japanese culture but on the contrary – it can definitely address almost everyone who is not scared of looking back into the darker, archetypical and indigenious side of his own personality.