Butoh: The Good of Going Out of Style
Ever since Isadora Duncan soared with solar plexus to the sky in a sheer tunic, modern dance has been about freedom. The overarching sense that anyone can do anything and that all one needs is the desire is a common assumption when it comes to modern dance. But questions arise when that desire moves towards making work, which means (among many other things) making aesthetic choices. To go one step further, when grappling with different forms of dance such as Butoh— a radical form of modern dance that emerged in post-World War II Japan and is known as the "dance of darkness"— the questions become even more complicated, especially as the form gains popularity internationally. For instance, what does it mean, aesthetically speaking, to define oneself as a Butoh dancer?
In fact, it’s quite difficult to assume anything about Butoh especially considering its resistance to definition. Butoh, with its often grotesque, distorted movement vocabulary, can be revolting or coolly austere, meditative or flamboyant. Performed naked or elaborately costumed, on both street corner and proscenium stage, Butoh can also be either highly symbolic, precisely choreographed, and slow moving (Eiko & Koma, Sankai Juku) or include wild, dynamic improvisations (Akira Kasai). Such diversity could be attributed to the time in which this form of dance emerged. Born in Japan in the late 1950s as western ideals flooded the Japanese culture, Butoh surfaced during a period of post-war cultural insecurity and political activism that fueled vibrant experimentation in underground performance art. Highly influenced by German expressionist dance, or danztheatre, and the writings of Antonin Artaud, Butoh was as much influenced by imported Western ideas as it was indigenous to Japan. It is then useful to think of Butoh as part of Japanese contemporary dance and very misleading to think about Butoh solely as a kind of mystical, impenetrable form from the exotic orient, which it is sometimes deemed.
In order to explore difficult, often taboo subjects through dance, Butoh used Western conventions in an overtly anti-Western and unconventional way and became an intense post-WWII Japanese phenomenon. Often exploiting the vulgar to reveal the underbelly of beauty, Butoh consistently met either awe and adoration or total disregard. But Butoh was not stapled to any one aesthetic. Its roots were deeply process- and lifestyle-oriented (as opposed to being product- or entertainment-driven as several Western dance forms are), which gave Butoh a distinct quality. Tatsumi Hijikata, Butoh’s founder and primary teacher, cultivated an atmosphere in which the body was ruthlessly trained to surrender itself to the dance, creating a dancer that appeared to transcend earthly being. But as Butoh is transplanted internationally, it appears to become more and more stylistic, void of this original transformative quality.
Currently, Butoh as a dance form is split. On the one hand there are performers interested in Butoh’s possibilities and use the form to search for an individual voice (usually these performers tend to resist being called Butoh dancers, and generally distance themselves from it). These works tend to be more connected to potent, socially conscious questions. On the other side are those pursuing theatrical agendas closer to performance art under the auspices of Butoh. Indeed, it has become too comfortable for some performers to appropriate the various surface aspects of Butoh— painting oneself white, shaving heads, wearing a thong, crouching down low, making faces, sticking out tongues, or something to that effect.
This year marked the first organized New York Butoh Festival (October), produced by Williamsburg’s the CAVE gallery and curated by local artists Jeff Janishefski and Ximena Garnica. On the night I attended the festival, I saw works that exemplified Butoh’s split identity. Joan Laage’s Infanticity, a performance art piece disguised as Butoh used some superficial elements of dance to make an oblique statement about religion and memory. She uses depths and heights wisely with props and placement that evoke time and its eerie passing. Yet, the body that travels through this musty environment seems lazy, resting, as if going through the motions absent-mindedly.
It was a relief to see Zack Fuller’s Voojaday. Fuller, an ex-punk rocker and student of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s muse, the physical actor Rychard Cyzlack, peers from behind the curtain donning a huge pundit’s mask on his head and an overstuffed penis inside a pair of tight black briefs. His naked limbs and flaccid belly are thrown bizarrely out of proportion. Fuller uses the movement and an integration of live sound to explore identity and the meaning of the body. Musicians Jonathan Vincent (accordion) and Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion) meld with the dance on stage, all elements violent yet resilient, ebbing and flowing in unpredictable cycles. Fuller’s awkward stumbles and lame ballerina spins rouse laughter until he throws off the mask to reveal a face smothered with black charcoal. He fills every inch of his body with movement of ranging intensities making one cringe, sink, laugh, and sometimes flinch.
Shinichi Momo Koga completed the evening with the gracefully designed Love is Shock. Hiding under mounds of a gorgeous fabric cloak, he softly blew a white kerchief from his face and peaked out curiously. A charming presence, he was rooted but levitating; within this tiny gem of a dance a path from dark to light moved like a stream. Eventually, letting down the burden of his cloak, he stomped on it as he turned in a slow circle. I overheard an audience member say "I want to marry that dance." Momo Koga’s work was vivid and strong, but it also made me wonder: why did he choose to paint himself white?
The CAVE gallery’s initiative to produce the New York Butoh Festival has great potential, and I hope they stay committed to fostering a diverse representation of artists. If they continue to present the kind of Butoh that reaffirms the form’s original significance, with context and content of more importance than mere style, the New York Butoh Festival may have a unique opportunity to provide a space for experimental work.
But it is also interesting to see what happens when such a radical art form such as Butoh makes its way further into the mainstream. At around the same time that the New York Butoh Festival began advertising, I noticed flyers for "Beginning Japanese Butoh" dance classes posted up at a downtown dance studio. I couldn’t help but wonder what the implications of such classes would be for Butoh as a form of dance. It’s not hard to imagine how such a rich, complex dance form could become marketable as a style, but what level of authentic teaching can be achieved on a "drop in" basis?
Of course, Butoh’s popularity in New York is nothing new. Kazuo Ohno’s debut here in the early ’80s left legendary impressions, as did performances by Min Tanaka, Sankai Juku and others. But Butoh was not created to be limited by a style with a codified set of rules and instructions such as ballet. Rather, Butoh, a product of the chafing cultural clash between imported American ideals and an insecure post-war Japanese sense of self that fueled an intense search for identity among the young Japanese avant garde, is entrenched in cultural context and so tied to social awareness (even inadvertently) it transcends style.
Butoh was not made for storage like an ancient relic in a museum and so it should not be practiced as a mere style. Even though new derivations offer new meanings of the form, Butoh is still about necessary explorations that are pertinent, volatile, and controversial. But Butoh also touches the "unknown" and audiences and performers should be conscious of this magic (more sense than word) and not simply define Butoh by its appearance. Butoh is a form of dance that allows the advent of an in between space, where a soul can be set loose to chisel these inadequate words, these impossible surfaces.
Alissa Cardone is a dancer and intermedia performance collaborator.