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A History of Butoh

October 3, 2019

Early on, Butoh was viewed with disgust and embarrassment by Japan’s conservative dance world. More accepted by the 1980s, it is heralded by many critics as the only genuinely Japanese form of modern dance as well as a leading world trend in modern dance. First appearing in the West in the 1970s, by the 21st century it has had many years to spread and develop within and beyond Japan and Japanese bodies. Several characteristics shape Butoh, but the use of the body is the one that most clearly sets it apart from other dance genres and has altered traditional views of dance.

The seeds of Butoh were planted in the experimental atmosphere of the late 1950s, when Tatsumi Hijikata and co-founder Kazuo Ohno began to question the nature of dance itself. Butoh was born out the turmoil and chaos resulting in a loss of identity following WWII that propelled them to reexamine their own culture and to create an indigenous modern genre of dance. Referring to various styles of Western ballroom dance, “Butoh” was adopted by Hijikata and soon his dance was titled Ankoku Butoh or “dance of darkness.” Dancers felt drawn to the German dance of the 1920s and 1930s with its grotesque and extreme states of emotion, and its emphasis on individual creativity. Dance as a creative interaction between form and content conveying the spirit of the times was markedly different from the interpretation of existing forms as practiced in traditional dance/theater and classical ballet. Well-respected critic Nario Goda believes that Butoh differs from the Expressionist movement in that it emphasizes “being” and “becoming.” For Hijikata the best body for a Butoh dancer is a corpse, a body that asks for and expresses nothing.

Hijikata rejected both Western and Japanese ideas of dance in an effort to restore what he considered to be the original Japanese body that had been robbed in the process of socialization, modernization, Westernization and Americanization. He was the first contemporary choreographer to emphasize the physique and natural movements of his countrymen. Working with the images and memory held in the body, Hijikata attempted to revive the consciousness of the Japanese body, the body being the body that sits on the floor, sleeps on a tatami mat and labors in the muddy rice fields.

Hijikata and his collaborators created a dance/theater reflecting the depression, devastation and loss of identity that he and other artists experienced, bringing to light what was socially unacceptable. His intense experimentation marked by an anti-dance spirit and spontaneity, followed by a period of isolation in the early 1970s, led to what has become an established technique composed of specified postures and movements inspired by childhood memories of being raised in the remote Tohoku area with its particularly harsh climate.

What distinguishes Butoh from other contemporary dance is its propensity of pulling from the primordial layer and its way of revealing that layer through movement. The body is often considered a vessel, a body that continually transforms inspired by nature imagery. One critic believes that Butoh is a process which involves gathering the essence of nature, the human body itself being part of nature. In his first days of experimentation, Hijikata worked principally with Kazuo Ohno and his son, Yoshito. Kazuo had been cultivating his own dance style since the 1920s and held his first performance in 1949. Butoh has been said to be poetry of the body with Hijikata as the architect and Ohno, the soul.

Although there are commonalities as to an underlying philosophy and aesthetics, Butoh is sometimes thought of as the dance of the individual and as such, there are as many styles of Butoh are there are Butoh dancers. So it is not surprising that, in terms of definition, Butoh remains a “slippery fish”. As it continues to be spread throughout the world, the individual artist’s style is understandably shaped by culture, nationality, physique, mentality, movement training, and especially Butoh encounters.

Ushio Amagatsu, leader of Sankai Juku, was formerly a member of Dairakuda-kan, directed by Maro Akaji, an actor who worked with Hijikata early on. Ushio brings with him his former group’s grand scale productions and creates tightly choreographed and exquisite dances with a sense of refined myth that lack the brutal rawness and unpredictability often experienced in other Butoh performances. One writer witnessed the 20th century and the primordial past existing simultaneously in the recesses of the subconscious while watching a Sankai Juku performance. Sankai Juku’s work continues to embody a sense of ancient mythological wonder.

Joan Laage
DAIPANbutoh Collective; Kogut Butoh
​Ph.D. Dance & Related Arts