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September 18, 2015

Dialogue with Gravity: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Butoh


sankai juku
Photo: A moment from UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, a Butoh-inspired work by the Japanese company Sankai Juku, who perform in Ann Arbor October 23-24, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

1. ‘Bu’ means ‘to dance’ and ‘toh’ means ‘to stamp the ground.’ (Via)

2. Butoh was originally the name of a ritual dance performed by peasants celebrating the harvest. Stamping the ground would trap a divinity in the ground, which would in turn lead to a good crop. (Via)

3. Art movements are often molded and pushed into being by tragic and disastrous events, and butoh is no exception. Now, the term butoh generally refers to the revolutionary Japanese dance movement spurred by the horrors of World War II.

4. The inventors Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno were looking for a new form of Japanese dance that did not use Western techniques. The first performances of butoh were so wild and provocative that the style and performances were banned. (Via)

5. This butoh has elements of existentialism, surrealism, German expressionism, Japanese kabuki theater, and Eastern spiritual thought. (Via)

6. Some butoh is referred to as a “dance of darkness” and often uses taboo, grotesque subject matter. Other butoh focuses on the more ridiculous and laughable aspects of the human condition. (Via)

sankai juku
Photo: Another moment from UMUSUNA: Memories Before History by Sankai Juku. Photo courtesy of the artist.

7. In addition to gaping mouths and mesmerizingly slow movements, two other signature characteristics of the form are shaved heads and the use of white powder to cover the dancers’ bodies. It’s still hotly contested why these practices originated the form. However, the impact is clear; through hiding dancers’ differentiating features, the attention of the audience is drawn to the dancers’ movements. (Via)

8. Unlike many Western dances, butoh says that the dance is already laying dormant in the dancer’s body as an “inner landscape.” To realize the dance, the dancer has to pull together personal experiences, memories, and habits. As a result, some butoh dances do not involve specific forms and movements as their basic element. (Via)

9. According to Amagatsu, the director of Sankai Juku, butoh represents a “dialogue with gravity.” Most dance forms, on the other hand, “revel in the escape from gravity.” That is, the aim of butoh is to play with perception of time and space through slowing down and synchronizing with gravity.

10. Butoh has already had several different generations of dancers who have made changes to the art form. Because butoh tends to rely on its dancers’ individual bodies, revivals of butoh compositions can be difficult. Sankai Juku is innovative in part because the company standardized repertoire so that movement could be repeated from performance to performance. In the past, butoh works often “lived and died in a single performance.” (Via)

Interested in more? From our archives, backstage with Sankai Juku.