Butoh: taking a cross-eyed, bow-legged bow
When the young dancer Yoshito Ohno simulated sex by breaking the neck of a live chicken between his thighs on stage on the evening of May 4th, 1959, one of Japan's most unique forms of cultural expression was born. This is Butoh, a form of dancing evolved by Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata that has continued to shock, baffle, disgust, confuse and delight audiences since that first night at the Tokyo Dance Festival over 4 decades ago.
One of the acknowledged greats of contemporary Butoh is 58-year old Akaji Maro, who developed his art under the tutelage of the legendary Hijikata before starting his own company, Dairakudakan (literally Camel Battleship), in 1972. With a major new show, Rivers Edge, due to open in January, Tokyo Journal spoke with the distinguished dancer and choreographer just after a stunning performance at his dance studio in Kichijoji.
"Butoh is a native Japanese product that developed in the Japanese soil, like the Japanese mountain potato," Maro tells me as he orders a coffee at a nearby coffee shop. "But like the yamaimo, you can now find this product all over the World."
What I'm trying to find out is the essence of Butoh, its dark secret. Like any journalist I want to find an easy way to explain it, to pack this monster comfortably away inside a neat box, but maybe its not ready to lie in its box just yet.
"There are many kinds of Butoh," Maro says, lighting up a cigarette, presumably to relax after his tense, taut performance of only a few minutes before. Although reluctant to define his art too clearly, he does his best to explain by contrasting Butoh with Western dancing. Whereas Western dance seeks to go up, to elevate and beautify the human form, Butoh goes in the opposite direction. Hijikata once said, 'I would never jump or leave the ground; it is on the ground that I dance.'
Butoh allows gravity and muscle to tie the body in what may seem like ugly knots of twisted feet and bodies, accentuated with cross-eyed grimaces reminiscent of the mie pose often seen in old ukiyo-e prints of kabuki actors.
"The first and basic form of Butoh is a kind of bow-leggedness," Maro gets up to demonstrate, assuming a look of comical world-weariness. "This is the traditional form of the Japanese peasant, although life may have changed now. But this is not exclusive to Japan. There are such peasants in other countries, and also old men stand like this in England. For Western dance, God exists in the sky, but for Butoh, God exists down here in these bow legs."
This down-to-earth quality, this recognition of the natural and the real makes other forms of dance seem pretentious by comparison.
Butoh is also a form of dance that is instantly accessible. When Maro, at the show earlier that evening, pretended to hear a phone ringing in his foot and hilariously attempted to answer it, the mainly young, mobile-phone-obsessed audience, instantly understood.
"I hope that people will come to see Butoh without preconceptions. When foreigners come to see Noh or Kabuki, they have often read up on it and have preconceptions about it. But with Butoh it's not necessary to know any history."
For Maro, everyday actions and gestures are very important.
"Butoh is a gathering of daily activities," he mentions. But the focus seems to be somewhere beneath the surface in the tension that exists between a creature whose evolution lags several tens of thousands of years behind its environment. Maro is interested in the way our behaviour is filtered and funneled by the objects and routines of life, and in the rediscovery of subconscious and natural movements.
"Our actions depend on objects. If we pick up a stone, the action is limited by the stone to throwing or banging it. It is the same with more complex objects like a typewriter. In developing our functional movements, we have discarded and forgot other movements, but functional and non-functional movements need each other."
Rediscovering the full range of human movement provides Dairakudakan with a rich palette to dance from, but the difficulty is how to access this subterranean world of primal, subconscious movement.
"If someone tries to prepare food and cuts his finger, or makes a mistake writing kanji, this moment of surprise is the first door of Butoh. Time is stopped by the event and in this moment he enters the black world. In such moments humans can find forgotten movements. My Butoh is the gathering of such moments to express forgotten unconscious movements."
What will most strike the visitor to Butoh, however, is the sheer, surreal spectacle it presents with its ghostly, shaven-headed, white-painted naked dancers. Earlier I had been privileged to watch one of the Dairakudakan dancers dressed back to front in a kimono, bow, drink tea, and crawl forward using his back as his front. Such impressive inversions and illusions are as much part of Butoh as digging beneath the surface to rediscover the instincts civilized man has discarded.
"When I first became a dancer, I wanted to stand on stage without any movement," Maro tells me with a mischievous glint in his eye. "I wanted to create movement without movement."
Isn't this difficult using only your body?
"No, its very easy, like a magician, to create an illusion."