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Butoh, Explained

What is Butoh? In a word, dance-theater…

History of Butoh

Butoh began in 1960s Japan as a new dance-theater form created by collaborations between Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. The inspiration for this new style was in part a reaction to post-war shock as well as the influx of western influence on Japanese dance, but also a desire to create something which differed from the strict, classical forms of Kabuki and Nōh theater. The two Kanji characters that form Butoh (舞踏) translate to dance and step, although it was originally called ankoku butoh (暗黒舞踏), ‘dance of darkness’. Because the term ‘butoh’ had traditionally been associated with Western or non-Japanese dance forms, this naming reversed expectations about the style and today butoh has come to be recognized as a one of uniquely Japanese origin.

The dance itself is difficult to define, as its founders were not teachers of a method, but commonly used are slow movements, white body paint, and grotesque or sexual imageries, in contrast to characteristics we in the West tend to take for granted as conventions of dance, such as meter determined by music, beauty of form, and immediate spectacle. Although spectacle may be a misleading word of contrast, as the excitement of Butoh often comes from its sheer attention to detail.

Here is a video of one of Butoh’s founders, Kazuo Ohno, performing a scene from his piece, ‘My Mother’.

Here is another of Ko Murobushi, a student of other founding member Tatsumi Hijikata performing his piece ‘Ritournelle’  at the Latvian National Opera in 2014.

Note the often begrudging movements, contorted faces, and yet throughout the exact confidence of each motion. At first unsettling, then hypnotic and suddenly beautiful, this is how Butoh is formed.

Butoh and Sankai Juku

The troupe Sankai Juku was founded by Amagatsu Ushio in 1975, and since then has toured worldwide, playing at events such as the Nancy International Festival and Edinburgh Festival, and receiving honours such as the Grand Prix at the Belgrade International theater Festival (1982), 33rd Japanese Dance Critic Association Prize (2001), and Best New Dance Production of the 26th Laurence Olivier Awards (2002). Their special relationship with the renowned  Théâtre de la Ville in Paris has resulted in the premiere of a new work every two years since 1982.

Sankai Juku

When asked what Butoh means to him, founder Ushio said:

“This may actually be closer to a definition of what creation is rather than what Butoh is, but after leaving Japan and looking at things anew, I became extremely conscious of the importance of what I call ‘difference and universality’ in culture.

As we toured the world performing, every city we went to was different in terms of language, food, daily life customs and all. We were drenched in a shower of differences almost every day. And in the process, I realized that culture exists exactly because of these differences. At the same time, on the other extreme there grew in me a heightened consciousness that there is a human “universality” that exists in all people, regardless of nationality or culture…Looking back now, I feel that those personal experiences of universality are the backbone that has enabled me to create and present my works to the world, or perhaps you could say they gave me the courage to work as I have.

Here is our Sankai Juku at Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center in 2015, premiering ‘MEGURI’ (山海塾). How varied, the execution of each performance, yet how similar their pull, this is how Butoh is performed.”

In the 2019/20 season, UMS presents “Meguri” in Sankai Juku’s sixth Ann Arbor performance on October 25-26, 2019 at the Power Center. Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the dance world’s great jewels!

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.