In Butoh, the body “speaks” for itself, through unconscious improvised movement
Butoh originated in the 1960s, after World War II. At this time in Japan, many theatre groups would perform socially challenging pieces, which mirrored the many student protests and restlessness at the time (Naranjo).
The founders of Butoh are Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno (Naranjo).
The Beginning of Butoh: Hijikata
Hijikata, a rebellious modern dancer, was not content with the Western type of Modern Dance that was typically performed in Japan at the time. He wanted to create a purely Japanese art form, creating a new form of expression – Butoh.
Hijikata believed that by distorting and twisting the body and by walking on bent legs he could escape the more traditional and Western idea of the “perfect” body, and return to a more “organic natural beauty” (McLeod).
This is not the beautiful and conventionally upright bodies of western dance. This is also a stark contrast from the meticulous and controlled movements of Noh and Kabuki. Hijikata was trying to find truth in movement – showing the human soul. This manifests itself into hightly ritualistic and primal movements. This is a performance art which allows the dancer to make discoveries as though she/he created and was created by the dance.
DeNatels, Bob. “Tatsumi Hijikata, Hosotan (1972).
A short clip of butoh’s co-founder Tatsumi Hijikata dancing
from the documentary Dance of Darkness by Edin Velez.
Hijikata is breaking from the constraints of conventional dance:
“I’m convinced that a pre-made dance, a dance made to be shown is of no interest. The dance should be caressed and fondled; here I’m not talking about a humorous dance but rather an absurd dance. It must be absurd. It is a mirror which thaws fear. The dancer should dance in spirit.”
However, those who did not understand the intention of his movements, the “absurdity” within the performance, may have found his pieces ridiculous and unintelligent. This is the why butoh is considered controversial to many. Coupled with the unconventional movement, Hijikata would often chose themes for his performances that are often dark and heavy.
For example, many people were offended by Hijikata’s first Butoh piece, Kinjiki. This performance was based on a novel that analyzes the taboo of homosexuality by Yokio Mishima. The most controversial scene – especially since we can assume the audience in Japan at the time was relatively conservative – is when a dancer strangles a live chicken between his legs as a metaphor for the adversity a homosexual person must encounter in society. Hijikata was banned from the festival in 1959 because of the grotesque content of his work (Naranjo).
The Beginning of Butoh: Kazuo Ohno
Although Hijikata and Ohno worked together and are considered the founders of Butoh, their styles of dance and performance are very different. While Hijikata’s work was often violent and provocative, Ohno’s was gentler and more emotional (McLeod).
“There are an infinity of ways in which you can move from that spot over there to here. But have you figured out those movements in your head, or are we seeing your soul in motion? Even that fleck at the tip of your nail embodies your soul… the essential thing is that your movements, even when you’re standing still, embody your soul at all times.”
– Kazuo Ohno
Kazuo Ohno performed into his final days of life, when he could barely even move. He is described by many as an artistic artifact – as an individual. His performances were very dramatic and expressive, but also contained a haunting nuance. His characters were often flamboyant women, combing humour with emotional intensity. His body movements are similar to Hijikata, which is both twisted and grotesque.(McLeod)
Ohno is a perfect examlpe of how Butoh embraces many different bodies, unlike Western dance. In Butoh s mature body brings as much or more to the performance than a youthful body. When Kazuo Ohno was 96 he was still dancing and performing with a bright inner intensity that cannot die with age. Butoh is often discussed as a therapeutic exercise, one must consider that butoh does have its techniques; strength, flexibility and balance are vital components, learning to become one with the “other”.
Hijikata invited Ohno to join his dance collective. With Ohno as his muse, Hijikata spent the next several years developing Ankoku Butoh-ha – “the dance of utter darkness”, which later became Butoh. The two collaborated from 1959 until Hijikata’s death in 1986. (Naranjo)
The Technical Aspects of Butoh
as descibed in (Naranjo)
Search for an individual or collective memory.
Use of taboo topics: death, eroticism, sex and mobilization of archaic pulsations.
Extreme or absurd environments.
Slow hyper-controlled motion.
Almost nude bodies completely painted in white.
Upward rolled eyes and contorted face.
Inward rotated legs and feet.
Playful and grotesque imagery.
Performed with or without an audience.
No set style: “There are as many types of butoh as there are butoh choreographers.” (Hijikata).
It may be purely conceptual with no movement at all.
Aesthetical features that go against the western archetypes of perfection and beauty.
Its technique uses some acquisitions from the traditional Japanese knowledge, like the control of energy, which translates into an insistent rhythm (close to Nô Theater) and strong expressivity.
Contemporary Butoh: Sankai Juku
Sankai Juku is a well-known Butoh performance group that has gained world-wide attention since the 1970s.
Because Butoh tends to be highly dependent on its dancers’ individualities, this often means that recreating many Butoh compositions is difficult. One of the innovations of Sankai Juku was the standardization of Butoh repertoire, which allows Butoh performances to be repeated. In some ways, Sankai Juku is very different from Hijikata because his performances were known to live and die in a single performance.
Contemporary Butoh: Mariko Endo
Akira Kasaiis another pioneer of the Butoh performace. He was influential in expressing his views the inner self and his view on the cosmos and life. Kasai was both a dancer and teacher, and his “Butoh of consciousness” lives on in many students, for example Mariko Endo is a current Butoh dancer, and uses Endo’s teachings as a guide for dance and expression.
“I personally think Hijikata’s dance technique is about ‘being’ or ‘transforming’. When you calm your conscious mind, you can be fulfilled with a crystal clear energy, then you let this clear energy drive your body and mind. The point is ‘What moves you’ instead of, ‘How you move’. “In European Modern dance, the dancer is the ‘subject’, and the manner that they interpret a piece is an expression of their individuality. However, in Butoh, this concept is reversed”. (Akira Kasai, The Dance in the Future. 2004.)” (Endo).
Mariko’s Butoh Workshop
Mariko Endo was trained in Japanese Butoh and brought with her the concepts she learned from her teacher, Akira Kasai, who is one of the co-founders of the Butoh movement. She described dance and physical movement as a “visible sound of the universe.” I found the workshop to be very interesting as both a dancer and as a performer. She talked about the body as a vehicle for energy as it moves from the universe into the ground and then back to the universe, and that through dance we have the power to take in energy and release it. The exercises we did involved taking the sounds of vowels and consonant (a, e, i, o, u, f, and m) and correlated these sounds with movement. The idea is that each of the sounds is different – they have a different effect on the vocal chords when said – and the movement should mirror the feeling the body has when saying each letter. For example, the movement associated with “o” was curved in the back and rounded in the arms, whereas “a” we would step forward, chest open with V-shaped arms. We began by saying (powerfully) each sound while doing the movement. With everyone’s booming voices in the room while we were dancing made the movements very powerful. The exercise was then to take away the voice.
Can we continue to have the same powerful effect without sound?
And how can we translate the power of sound to the power of movement?
This is where the energy comes in. I love the way she described it: the way one would usually give sound with a voice, we are now forced to exude something else into the space around us, not sound but energy. It was amazing the focus everyone had: and with this idea in mind, our movement was very powerful even without sound. As a dancer and performer this is a quality that everyone strives for. You can walk across a stage very casually, without focus and this is not interesting to watch. But there is another way you can walk across the stage: with your head held high, very focused, and very conscious of every aspect of your body. Your movement is deliberate and with each movement you have energy exuding from your limbs and you are taking in energy as well. This is performance! And this is how we can express so much through dancing. Mariko began the workshop by saying that when you have an amazing experience, there is no way that you can relive it through words alone. The goal of this workshop was to embody these feelings we have through movement, and feeling connected to the energy and emotion that is surrounding. It was a very powerful workshop and I felt that I learned so much about dance, performance, posture, and movement.