My Encounters with Butoh

December 16, 2017

Butoh is a form of dance originating in Japan just after World War II. Its creators rejected both the imitation of western dance styles and the classic Japanese theatrical forms of Noh and Kabuki. The raw emotions that early butoh evoked grew out of Japanese war and early post-war experiences. It has been described in the New York Times:

BUTOH IS NOT FOR THE FRAIL. THE AVANT-garde dance form that today is Japan’s most startling cultural export does not aim to charm. Instead, it sets out to assault the senses. The hallmarks of this theater of protest include full body paint (white or dark or gold), near or complete nudity, shaved heads, grotesque costumes, clawed hands, rolled-up eyes and mouths opened in silent screams.

I first saw butoh performed by a Japanese company, Sankai Juku, at SUNY Purchase around 1995. I bought a book of photographs of that company, but beyond that I had no contact with butoh until I met Douglas Allen, a member of Ollom Movement Art, a performance company guided by the choreographer, John Ollom. John, with Douglas assisting. facilitated a weekend in which the participants created their own movement art pieces. I supervised the video-taping of their work.

When I learned that Douglas had studied and practiced butoh, I invited him to perform during the weekend and suggested he use the mud pit that was part of the facility where we were working.

I forgot about the footage I had shot that day. Seven years later I edited it into the form shown above – a form that for me demonstrated the spirit of butoh. I could write a whole book and not cover everything that could be said to define this dance form,. Writing this book would be complicated by the fact that butoh perfomers often avoid giving verbal explanation of their work.

This was the case with Hiroko Tamano, a Japanese performer who has taught in the U.S.

When a completely new student arrived for a workshop in 1989 and found a chaotic simultaneous photo shoot, dress rehearsal for a performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, workshop, costume making session, lunch, chat, and newspaper interview, all “choreographed” into one event by Tamano, she ordered the student, in broken English, “Do interview.” The new student was interviewed, without informing the reporter that the student had no knowledge what butoh was. The improvised information was published, “defining” butoh for the area public. Tamano then informed the student that the interview itself was butoh, and that was the lesson.
                           — From a Wikipedia article on butoh

My feeling is that my video goes beyond being a video of a butoh performance, it also is butoh.

This past weekend I was one of the facilitators for a retreat at Easton Mountain called Expressing Your Inner Self. Friday evening we had a session on poetry led by the published poet, Douglas Allen. At the end of the session I wrote the following:

If I walk a thousand miles, will I find illumination?

  • only if you look at what you are carrying rather than the land through which you are passing
  • only if you see what you are passing as something you are carrying and what you are carrying as something you are passing.

We also had two session devoted to drawing, and here is one of my drawings. The assignment was to use the human form in something which is not human.


Take a few minutes to meditate on this picture. If you have privacy, take off your clothes. Read the rest of this paragraph and then close your eyes. Visualize the figures in this temple made of polished wood. What do you see yourself doing in this temple? What ritual might you perform. When you’ve meditated for about five minutes, open your eyes.

Reflect on how the drawing you see and the image in your mind are one – how they are both something you are passing and something you are carrying.

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