The title is what many refer to ‘Butoh’ as. It’s considered a largely experimental or avant-garde style of dance and performance theatre composed of “crude gestures” originating from Japan. While it’s content is based on the pain, suffering and inner conscious workings of human life, it’s style, design and exposition is thoroughly surreal. It’s a form that has influenced me greatly, and many others since its conception.
Butoh is thought to have originated in 1959 in Japan, emerging from the collaborations of its key founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Ohno Kazuo (though originally known as ‘Ankoko Buyô’ – meaning ‘Utter darkness’ and ‘Dance’.) They both talk of how they were influenced by street performers in their home towns as well as certaib European styles and ‘dances of death’. While both take slightly different views as to the nature of Butoh’s form and significance, both agree that it can symbolise the beauty of life as well as the darkness of human nature. It is however a difficult form to define and indeed one that does better without definition, Hijikata stating that he viewed the formalisation of the genre with “distress”. It’s a form that was born in the streets and abandoned studios of Japan, and it’s one that flourishes most without mainstream intervention or exploitation despite the vast influence it’s had on film and theatre worldwide. It can only exist in darkness.
The dancers in a performance are often covered in white body paint, and wearing little. They are basic and yet they are striking, with bulging eyes and grotesque faces. The movements of Butoh are slow and appear painful – a performer will often contort their body slowly to form shapes from their limbs which both disturb and enchant. Embracing both a post-modern Japanese ‘voice’ and the Kabui tradition of traditional history, it’s a dance form that drags you down to explore the bowels of the Earth and human soul.
Yet even so it can vary in style. Some performers appear in large groups with a more flamboyant style, such as the Dairakudakan. Their piece ‘Temptenshiki’ (2012 performance) has two figure sat in the centre, with growing numbers of cascading white faces and bodies flying around and behind them. The crew have more props and costumes, making it more expressive in the physicality of their environment as much as that of their bodies.And yet the base contortion remains, with the slow movements of the central characters pitched against the speeding, ghostly figures. Tradition is evident here as the figures, that vaguely resemble the traditional Yûrei speed by to the pulsing rhythm of Taiko drums. Indeed, it’s fairly upbeat for a Butoh piece, establishing a distinct sense of tension and fear at the situation. Butoh is often spiritual in its form, so the area of performance s both ambiguous and centralised to wherever the performance is held, as if we are watching ghosts on a plain of existence beyond our own.
Other performances can be fair more paired down, such as Kazuo’s ‘Mother’ (as part of the piece ‘Butterfly Dream’ 1980 – Although not entirely certain on the date.) Here we see a single performer, Kazuo, with a single flower – performing only next to a single musician. It entirely revolves around the movements of a single form, part human and yet seemingly distant from any semblance of humanity despite it’s exploration of grief, sadness ad other key human factors. His movements appear painful and random – though the meaning can often be interpreted, the piece seems engrossed in emotional pain, a conflict of love, hate and guilt surrounding a maternal relationship. His appearance is constantly surreal, there’s not let-up on how weird it is and so this piece, as Butoh often does, transcends the normal way we watch dance or theatre. Indeed, you might say it has more in common with dance this way, but still maintains its theatrical ambition to transport, to engross and to tell a story, even if that story is the one of all mankind. Other pieces go even further than this, and simply have one performer in an outside space with nothing but thinly textured music for accompaniment. It often seems that music is a key part of Butoh, it’s a constant representative of the history of the tradition, and a liquid on which the performance sails.
I mentioned earlier that Butoh has influenced many, and it seems that transmission of what was a distinctly underground art form has in turn influenced contemporary Butoh itself. Take another of Kazuo’s pieces, ‘The Written Face’ (date unknown.) This piece is filmed rather than staged, with a direct purpose as o the setting and even a filter over the camera to cast the whole scene with a dark blue haze. It seems interesting to compare the old VHS style videos from the 80s to the well produced counterparts around now. For me it doesn’t detract from the genre, as long as it doesn’t consume it. Butoh belongs on the streets, the temples, on the Earth – as long as their are still outdoor performances then Butoh can expand as far as it likes. It has been formed from tradition and therefore it must always have deep roots there. Indeed, Hijikata also has had pieces filmed to the same effect, such as ‘A Girl’ (date unknown.)
There have also been very direct western interpretations of the dance form, in that they are pieces which communicate the same mode of movement and design of the dancer. One such performer is Fred Herrera, whose performance Butoh to Costa-Rica. My favourite performance of his has to be his ‘Gigante de Sal’ performance i.e. ‘Giant of Salt’. Again, it’s a simple design and setting, as the camera closely views Herrera so he takes up the majority of the frame, the giant in the limelight. We watch him contort and shape his body over the fixed physical elements of the small stage, portraying the movement of soul and emotion over what can be a cruelly inanimate world. His piece lacks the traditional music of his Japanese counterparts but that seems to just be a result of the cultural transmission. It appears that Butoh in transmission often loses that culturally Japanese elements to instead ingratiate itself within another cultural memory – in this case a South American one.
The dance of darkness is terrifying to watch. It’s formed from surreal human forms contorting and exploring the darkest parts of human existence in abstract performance. And yet it often ends with melancholy hope. It’s a form of performance that is alternative and must stay so, but it’s one that can be translated into different cultures due to the universality of its content and nature. A visually striking, terrifying demonstration of human nature which I hope both stays firmly with its underground/historical roots while also celebrating its influence over visual artists worldwide.