Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Phenomenon of Butoh

The only way I can describe butoh is from the point of view of a performer, which is that it is a totally non-performance experience. One does not dance butoh in order to show off technical prowess or to shine on stage. In fact, one wants the opposite; to lose oneself in the moment by going through the moment totally aware. The ego disappears since this is a dance about life force and timeless experience. If the ego appears there is opportunity to question why it has come forward, and usually discover answers.

Movement in butoh begins in the mind as an image and moves into the body through the breath. The eyes are unfocused, the mouth is open and the breath is frequently audible. The audible breath gives the dancers awareness of others on the stage around them and the performance is not over until the last dancer is off stage or has stopped breathing audibly.

White makeup is worn on the entire body, even under costumes. Once the face is white there is no more speaking until the face makeup is removed. As Koichi Tamano, a dancer in San Francisco explains, “In dancing we aim at an internal space. We paint our bodies white to provide clear, uncluttered canvas...” Tamano studied for 10 years under butoh co-founder Tatsumi Hijikata. (Yafonne) And from Kazuo Ohno, “The Butoh costume is like throwing the cosmos onto one's shoulders. And for Butoh, while the costume covers the body, it is the body that is the costume of the soul.”

My teacher, Doranne Crable, studied with Kazuo Ohno. Ohno and Hijikata founded butoh in the late 1940’s in Japan. The first butoh choreography presented to the public by Hijikata and Ohno in 1959 featured Ohno's young son and was considered scandalous. In the 1970's, Hijikata's style of butoh was called “Ankuko butoh” which translates as Dance of Darkness. Hijikata quit dancing in 1977 about the same time that Ohno came back to the stage with a piece called “La Argentina”. What people saw was the opposite image of Ankoku-butoh. Sakurai writes, “It was far from 'Hijikata’s style'. There was no style. It was improvisation. What Kazuo Ohno presented was to stand, not to crouch or get down and shrink oneself as Hijikata pursued. His direction was cosmic and universal rather than Japanese.” Sikkenga writes, “Both were at extreme ends of the spectrum: Ohno the light, Hijikata the dark. Both intensities were necessary to combine and create the energy that is butoh”.

Crable traveled to Osaka, Japan to study Classical Japanese dance with Isaburo Hanayagi. In this form there is no improvisation, the dancers work only with time honored stories. Hijikata's and Ohno's work often carried aspects of classical Japanese dance such as men performing the women's roles. While studying, Crable attended a performance by Ohno during which he danced with no sound track and only a single flower. She was fascinated and made her way to Ohno's studio in Yokohama where he would teach the students without speaking to them. Sometimes Ohno would have an assistant go to a dancer and adjust their body.

The main technique that holds previous students of Hijikata and Ohno together is the use of the breath as the beginning of all movement. This technique can be traced back Mary Wigman's famous modern dance school in Germany, where Hijikata and Ohno both studied. Laban technique, which was introduced by Wigman's teacher Rudolf Laban, emphasizes the use of breath and spatial dynamics which are important aspects of butoh. There are many people who appropriate the name “butoh”for their performances, and Crable's explanation for the uneven range of interpretations is that most take only one aspect of butoh and exploit it.

Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski said that butoh was the search for “a very ancient form of art where ritual and artistic creation were seamless. Where poetry was song, song was incantation, movement was dance”. (Osinski) Another writer said that “butoh connects the conscious with the unconscious. Movement is not dictated from the outside, but, appears in the interaction between the outer and inner world.”(Sikkenga)

The interaction between outer and inner world also compels Crable to continue to dance and choreograph butoh. When asked what inspires her about butoh, she replied, “the ability to communicate and hold the intensity inside the body that expresses along a continuum from bursts of speed to slowness.”

Even if one is performing a human role, the experience does not come from the human, but from non-human imagery. When asked a question by a dancer about human conflict in a butoh choreography, Doranne replied, “the work with images of living non-human creatures is because humans may fail again [and again] but nature will go on in loveliness and violence. That conflict in nature just is. Dragon, monkey, beetle, tiger, just are.”

Crable also teaches and performs butoh in order to honor her teacher, Kazuo Ohno, who said; “I don't think that dance can be seen independently from the notion that man lives...There are always hidden wounds, those of the heart, and if you know how to accept and endure them, you will discover the pain and joy which is impossible to express with words. You will reach the realm of poetry which only the body can express.” (Kazuo Ohno)

“The more people try to understand butoh, the less they understand. But that doesn't matter. There are things like the stars, the moon, which you can't reach. Nothing is so beautiful, so marvellous, as the intangible, the incomprehensible.” Min Tanaka

Bergmark, Johannes. Butoh - Revolt of the Flesh in Japan and a Surrealist Way to Move
Crable, Doranne. Personal Interview with author. 19 Feb 2007. Olympia, WA.
Osinski, Zbigniew. “Grotowski blazes the trails: from objective drama to ritual arts”. The Drama Review 35 (1991) 1 Spring, 95-112
Sakurai, Keisuke translated by Asako, Maruno. The Body as Dance: 
An Introduction to The Study of Butoh-ology.
Sikkenga, Harmen. Kobo Buto – Butoh: dance of darkness.
Yafonne. The Bang of Bay Area Butoh.