During the 1960s, as the United States was going through its tangled period of adolescent angst and rebellion against "the establishment," Japan's avant-garde artistic community began to express its own struggle for identity amid a culture increasingly under seige by the forces of Westernization. It was a time of searching for that which was truly Japanese and was a response to the horrors of the nuclear age and the imposition of Western ideas, technology and tastes.
As founders of the dance form Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno were prime movers among an underground art world that was turning away from Western dance forms as well as centuries-old traditions of Japanese dance and theatre. In her book Ankoku Buto (one of the few resources available in English on the subject of Butoh) Susan Blakely Klein explains that this rebellion was in retaliation not only to the assimilation of Western dance techniques such as classical ballet, but also to the watering down of Japanese art forms such as Kabuki. She explains that in order to cater to the tastes of upper class Japanese and Western audiences, Kabuki actors and writers were admonished to tone down the eroticism and flamboyance of their performances, resulting in a sanitized version deemed more suitable and appropriate to mainstream sensibilities. The avant-garde's response, Klein writes, was "a nostalgic return to the primitive roots of dance, to a premodern (i.e. pre-Western influence) mode whose expressive power was to be derived from its links to the uncanny and irrational and to a kind of subterranean reservoir of raw sexual energy tied up in the intimate rotation that primitive humanity once had with nature."
The first fruit of this rebellion in the Butoh dance form was Hijikata Tatsumi's 1959 performance of Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors), based on the novel by Mishima Yukio. In this first performance, music and interpretive program notes were eliminated, as were any sophisticated dance techniques that were not natural to the body. Horrific imagery, including the use of dead chickens, and graphic sexual references infused the work with a primitive, primordial quality. In fact, the early performances of Hijikata were so extreme that in 1968, with the performance of Revolt the Flesh, he was banned by the Japan Modern Dance Association.
The dance works of the first generation of Butoh artists were in stark contrast to the harmonious visual grace long associated with Japan. Turning away from the pageantry and tradition of Noh and Kabuki and responding to the social upheaval of their time, these artists turned to the grotesque. They found expression in the most basic, unrecognizable shapes and stirrings of man's subconscious memory. "By returning the focus of dance to the simplicity of the body," writes Klein, "those involved with Ankoku Buto hoped to tap into the expressive energy and sense of life that they felt had been lost in contemporary society."
The word Butoh itself is a combination of the character "bu," which means to dance, and the character "to" which means to step or tread. In Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul, Mark Holborn writes:
In 1954 Hijikata began collaborating with Kazuo Ohno. Ohno was strongly influenced by the work of German modern dancer Harold Kreuzberg, whose shaved head was adopted by early Butoh artists.
One signature characteristic of the form used by Hijikata and Ohno that remains in performances by artists such as Sankai Juku is the practice of wearing white body makeup. Though the original purpose of this practice is debated, what is clear is that Butoh choreographers, by obliterating all differentiating features of the dancers, drew the attention to the movement. By eliminating the emphasis on individualism so accentuated in Western philosophy, Butoh artists created a sense of regeneration and ongoing evolution. The dancers, mere human figures moving amidst the shadowy, darkened lighting of the Butoh stage, were primordial beings of any time and place, expressing the everyman cycles of birth, decay and death. Klein adds that this absence of distinguishing physical characteristics "destroyed all emblems of personal taste, a step towards freeing the dancer from capitalism's consumer culture."
The tortuous, incredibly controlled micromovement of the Butoh dancer is also a sharp turn from the bravura technique of Western dance. In watching, the audience becomes caught up in a still, dark place between action and reaction. The sense of passing time is lost, and each breathlessly unfolding moment becomes magnified through its incremental changes. While there is no set vocabulary of steps or "technique" to Butoh, certain characteristic stances, such as the crouched, almost fetal position, where the body is sunk low into the floor, are still prominent in performances by Butoh artists today. Klein writes, "When the dancers crouch down, a plane hovering 15 centimeters below the stage is created, from which the dancers are helped to experience the viewpoint of insects and animals." Sankai Juku Artistic Director Ushio Amagatsu adds that "[the crouched stance] teaches the students to work against tension and toward a natural body ... It is getting to certain natural states rather than learning some technique or form."
With the advent of second and third generation Butoh artists, the art form itself has evolved and likewise the intent of the original artists has diverged. A form that was once filled with raw violence and chaos is now described as translucent, peaceful, beautiful and elementally human. Butoh has found an enthusiastic audience in the West, particularly with the international performances of Sankai Juku and Butoh-influenced artists such as Maureen Fleming and Eiko & Koma. The form has become more accessible, though not necessarily more understandable, to Western audiences.
Solo artist Maureen Fleming, whose stunning performance of Water on the Moon in Pittsburgh in 1992 received rave reviews from Dance Council audiences, has earned international recognition for her own unique dance-theatre form born out of the melding of her Japanese and American heritage. Fleming studied and performed with Min Tanaka and Kazuo Ohno in the early 1980s and still speaks of her experience with Tanaka with quiet intensity.
"I was really strongly impacted the first time I saw Butoh," says Fleming. "I saw Min Tanaka dancing in the ruins of Greece and there was such a power and an energy there; I found that I could not only be watching it visually, but I could close my eyes and still see and sense the movement; it had that kind of power."
Fleming, who studied various modern techniques as well as the Cecchetti ballet method with Margaret Craske, describes her period of study with Tanaka: "Min was interested in pushing the body to its physical limit," she says. "He was looking for the chaos of being in an out-of-control place. If you asked him where his center was, he'd say, 'Up on the wall.' He believed in the need for catharsis; that our dark forces need to have a release."
"We fasted for eight days alone up in the mountains, the object being to break down the armory around the body and get in touch with the inner energy. That sense is not the focus of most Western dance."
Fleming explains that the dancers focused on imagery in the course of their training with Tanaka and Ohno: "We would study imagery that I would call classic imagery because it is rooted in 3000 years of spiritual traditions that involve the body. They are images that are keys to opening something in the unconscious, something that is both ancient and universal."
Fleming left Tanaka to seek her artistic identity and today her work pairs Butoh's regenerative quality with post-modern invention and the American emphasis on individual expression and revelation. "What interested me was how I could use archetypal imagery, those evolutionary traces imbedded in human experience, to create dance that is relative to evolution. How could I create images that are based in my own culture that are also universal? I have always been interested in art which has no country, which speaks no language. It is from this search that my body has found a unique language."
From her perspective of personal experience, Fleming explains how her work and the work of Sankai Juku and other Butoh-influenced artists of today has evolved from the searing, controversial performances of Hijikata:
"Sankai Juku tends to deal with transformation, going to the light, rather than to the darkness, as Min Tanaka did. Sankai Juku is more about taking the horrific energy and transforming it; it is much more beautiful, but it is also very Japanese. With regard to my own work, the main difference is that Butoh was a revolution against Western technique and technical feats. That's something, I am interested in if it is initiated by an image."
In February, Dance Council audiences will have the opportunity to experience the haunting seductive dance-theatre of Japanese-American artists Eiko & Koma. Though they do not define their work as Butoh, their use of minimalism and metamorphosis, haunting visual imagery and exquisitely controlled movement reveals their linkage with the form and the universal concepts from which it was born.
"Butoh belongs both to life and death. It is a realization of the distance between a human being and the unknown. It also represents man's struggle to overcome the distance between himself and the material world. Butoh dancers bodies are like a cup filled to overflowing, one which cannot take one more drop of liquid- the body enters into a perfect state of balance." - Ushio Amagatsu, Sankai Juku, from program for Kinkan Shonen, 1982.
Editor's note: Special thanks to Maureen Fleming and Susan Blakely Klein for their valuable time and assistance on this elusive topic. Ms. Klein's book Ankoku Buto: The Premodern and Postmodern Influences on the Dance of Utter Darkness is available for purchase through Cornell East Asia Papers, East Asia Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. The price is $7.00 including shipping and handling. Also recommended is Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul, with commentaries by Mark Holborn and stunning photography by Ethan Hoffman.