The mythological quest to express the sublime through the human body can be the great mystery and significance of dance. The grace and emotive gravity of dance inspire us to explore shared resonance and to comprehend our substance through a most intimate artistry. Yet we are ever limited by our human bodies, those endlessly elusive entities that enrobe our vocabularies and begin and end our extraordinary worlds. Butoh dancing (舞踏) is an expression of body that has found relevance outside of its roots in Japan, across cultures and generations.
Originally known only as the “dance of darkness” or “dance of death”, Butoh has evolved into an encompassing expression of every element to be found through the human body. It does not transcend the human form or express a superhuman consciousness, but challenges us to comprehend ourselves through a different mentality. Despite the fairly recent origination of this dance form, it has quickly appealed and demonstrated that it speaks to something common within us, however we may allow our cultural and geographic borders to define us.
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A Background on Butoh
Dance is a corporeal poetry that speaks to us through sensual body memory and intangible thought, thus communicating experience and expressing ideals. We may, for instance, find the most exquisite aspirations to perfection in the sculptural forms of ballet and the etiquettes of ballroom dance — but what dance is there to speak of anguish and terror? What of the uncontainable spirit that seeps from our grotesque beings in spite of vigilant taboo? Would it not be deceptive to express the most visceral of human experience through only forms of chiseled beauty? Dance that declares itself as an encompassing language for human experience yet speaks from under a veneer of piety for conventional aesthetics is fundamentally dishonest. With passionate protest to the void in integrity of expression and against standards of superficiality, Butoh emerged at the end of the 20th century.
It was in the shadow of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Butoh’s first breaths were drawn, already shuddering naked and borne by true darkness. Shaped into its ghostly form by dancers Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, Butoh came to define Japanese avant-garde dance in its embrace of the totality of emotional experience and the absurdity found in the raw body. Ohno and Hijikata composed a new lyric for the human body where nothing was forbidden to experience. The revolutionary spirit of Butoh explored morbidity and sexuality in its most explicit forms. By doing so, it not only transformed the Japanese stage but connected with international audiences and dancers, tantalizing a universal desire for this same purity of expression. Until the ’60s, there had been no such dance within Japan that allowed for the communication of the uninhibited body and, as far as technical form, there still exist few such parallels.
As Butoh has grown in popularity, its essence has evolved into as many forms as there are dancers.
“In general,” says Katsura Kan, a Kyoto-based Butoh dancer and choreographer, “if we have five Butoh dancers, we have six different philosophies.”
Despite this fluidity, there remain some elements that unify familiar aesthetics and practices within Butoh. In a celebration of the unmediated experience, Butoh often disregards the use of particular choreography. Themes of the absurd, tragic and grotesque continue to dominate, although this has increasingly evolved as dancers accept the anti-aesthetic essence of Butoh form. Butoh invites unlimited possibility for exploration of self and of environment. The continued progress made in sharing this revolutionary dance is sure to open a greater medium of expression and of engaging with every aspect of our realities.
Experiencing & Communicating The Body
There is much to be discovered within the body’s form, and even more still to be distantly remembered. For dancer and for audience, the Butoh experience is an archaeology of the body’s flesh and bones, a topography of its moving spirit, and an impulsive cosmology of emotion. It is difficult to say whether Butoh is a science of the body, or if the body is the science of Butoh. What is absolute is the gravity of an honest performance.
At its root an extraordinarily simple dance, Butoh radically challenges the notion of the body as merely a vessel for narrative. Butoh embraces the human body as no longer the means and end of movement and expression, but rather as the very substance being expressed. The stories that can be dreamt around the shapes created by Butoh dancers most often involve a sudden representation of the awareness of the body as reality.
“In Butoh, the body is not a tool for expressing a story; the body is a story,” says Tetsuro Fukuhara, a Tokyo-based Butoh dancer and choreographer who studied under one of the founders of the Butoh movement, Akira Kasai. This perception may often be revealed in the dramatic shape of the dancer playing with the gradient between limb and outer environment, or as a tale of confrontation with the struggles of the body as perimeter of a world.
With physicality as protagonist, the composition of Butoh dance becomes malleable as clay; its unrepeatable evolution is uttered in every gesture and vacuum. The challenge is to rediscover the body’s intrinsic ability to move within space in its most unanointed and desocialized form – a return to uninhibited innocence. This requires a deep surrender to thoughtlessness and a reception to the spontaneous response of one’s own body. Moreso than with any actual movement or aesthetic, it is this body consciousness that forms the core of Butoh. It is what makes Butoh so necessary in hyper-modern environments that capitalize on the imposed ignorance and objectification of our bodies. The process of remembering the sensuality of body, transcending body shame, and submitting to purposelessness in bodily expression is the foundation from which dancers can begin to understand and communicate Butoh. Once such space is created within, a dancer can feel the compassion necessary to respect the body, and Butoh can begin to be expressed through gesture.
Gesture & Movement
Butoh in motion is a communion between inspiration and limb, where bones rise and sink to no musical rhythms, except those of a moment’s most immediate essence. But spontaneous reaction alone is not always enough to communicate the thoughts of a Butoh dancer. Sometimes exercises themselves take on a theatrical quality to challenge dancers in their explorations of embodiment. The Butoh dancer learns to express the whole world by fully living the reality of whatever object, element or living being they choose. They become possessed. As a result, depending on the dancer’s spontaneous experience or vision, Butoh will exist in a delicate balance between the complete abandonment of role and a willful impression of objects.
Equally as powerful as articulated gesture within Butoh, however, is the absence of movement or a silence of being. Such an expression is absent in many other forms of dance. This kind of suspended anti-gesture uses stillness to speak louder than any human choreography. Once in motion, the body’s pace is channeled through the internal rhythms of rushing blood and breath, or by experimenting with unsynchronized layers of music and movement.
Body, Space & Empathetic Participation
If Butoh is carried within the body, where in our world does it belong as performance? Aside from any demand to define Butoh in its totality, there could hardly be a more challenging question. Most often, we experience Butoh in a theatrical context, knowingly observing the dance as performance on a deliberate stage — whether traditional or simply an area that has been adapted for performance. Yet, there has never been any particular requirement for a staged Butoh and, in an almost dismissive manner, neither has there been need for even an audience. It is easy to then attribute a kind of mystical hermeticism to the Butoh dancers who perform their dance as secret rituals of the subconscious, in reclusive locations like caves or sand dunes in the desert. Certainly these ascetic experiences serve a purpose for the dancers, but they do risk alienating us as audiences in our curiosity to observe and understand Butoh form.
Here is where Butoh begins its truly contextual evolution in the heart of not only the dancer, but also the audience. With an unlimited opportunity to call any space a stage, Butoh dancers may deliberately engage their environments as instinctual sources of inspiration for their choreography, or as symbolic enhancers for the audience’s appreciation. Of course, it is ideal to have both — for the result is then a destruction of the passive relationship between dancer and audience, which so toxically feeds off of judgemental entertainment, so that everyone present can lucidly engage with the Butoh experience.
Our naturally inhabited environments often serve as superior spaces for the Butoh experience than a stage that fundamentally carries within its architectural identity the tendency for segregation. Our cities, these cults of information, can never promise us constancy, which makes them magnetic for dancers who wish to take advantage of their innate spontaneity. The emotional complexities of accidental audience and the power of inescapable architecture allow Butoh dancers to engage the body as narrative in the most formidable ways, forcefully and with great relevance. The fluid environments of city streets challenge the temporal experience of spectacle, while conscious composition on the part of the dancer against the characters of buildings expresses a contrast to the monumental. We are constantly urged to consider the sensuous flexibility of flesh against the imperturbability of concrete; we are charged with interpreting the symbolic visual of Butoh which confronts us, but also, and perhaps most importantly, with comprehending the great absurdity made obvious within our constructed chaos.
And here we arrive at a most critical and surprising point: no matter where it is experienced, Butoh is not the sole responsibility of the dancer. It is a truly complete communication that involves everyone present. Butoh dance does not begin and end with the dancing body. Its puzzling spirit overflows from under the flesh of the dancer and absorbs into the essence of its viewers. Without our complete emotional surrender, Butoh performed with an audience is somewhat lessened. When the intention of the dancer is to share the Butoh experience, the dance is danced equally by the audience which opens its heart unconditionally, and to do this requires an immense faith in the emptying of a conditioned mind. There must be a desire to dissociate from the aesthetic conditions harbored within one’s self and to simply accept the intimate reality expressed by the dancer. Only in this way will there be space created for an empathetic experience of Butoh as opposed to a dancer’s voyeuristic exploitation.
Developing Consciousness Through Butoh
Without being overtly spiritual, Butoh is an experience of unordinary consciousness. In the contorted forms of Butoh dancers, we remember the extremities of identity and disengagement to which they must go for the sake of embodiment. Emptiness, always such vast emptiness… but nothing else can communicate greater truth. The constructed self, teetering precariously between scripted roles and actions, must be suppressed in favor of the totality of being — a grandiose concept on its own, but no more perfectly suitable for exploration than within Butoh. It is this honest experimentalism that allows Butoh to touch the sublime. Improvisation reflects internal truth, speaking more purely to subjective human experience than any mechanized course of movement. It is a glimpse into a world that barely slips outside of the reach of our lucid experience — a world that deeply thirsts for sense and familiarity within chaos.
Butoh forces us to confront this absurdity, no matter if we are dancers or observers. The struggle of the dancer is to overcome aesthetic molds for the body and to express physical existence in its most intuitive form. As an audience, we may not know what to think of the bizarre and often frightening shapes that we know to be human, but which speak to us in so coarse and enigmatic a language. In its most poetic expression, Butoh explores the encounter of an embodied being not only with the space and the otherness of the space which encompasses them, but also the awe and terror that live within us in their greatest forms.
It is when we are incited by this absurdity that we begin to transform. This does not by any means assert a form of external power upon Butoh. No, for the personal evolution that can become the protagonist is always directed from within and is never imposed. It would be dangerous to assume Butoh to be a universal language, but it most certainly communicates universal themes.
The transformative power is in the decision to accept an expression that is unfamiliar and provocative. When dance reminds us of our borne realities and when it transports us into an alternative, we are given the opportunity to channel these incredible capacities. And it is through the constant exploration of communication that we can grasp the significance of Butoh that is unique to us and our understanding of the world.