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Butoh - Revolt of the Flesh in Japan and a Surrealist Way to Move, Part 2.

                                           © Copyright by Johannes Bergmark

The desire for originality, the exploration of paths towards it, and the attention paid to obstacles that have blocked the way to the memory, is a constant in butoh (and in surrealism). To rediscover childhood memory, the movements of children, the life in the womb, the dead that live within the living, the pre-history of man, and "non-human," animal or vegetable origins, recur in butoh - they correspond to the needs that are eternal in man. "My dancing originated in a place that has no affinity with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. (...) I was born from the mud and sod." (Hijikata) "Butoh is for me a part in the whole, a kind of endless fetus movements - an energy that always is about to be born but yet never is born." (Akaji Maro) "Butoh is a form that almost precedes dance, just as a child moves and plays before he dances." (Akaji Maro) From the 70's, Hijikata seeked the innocence of the child by avoiding too much thinking: "Now I am a frog, far away from the shadow of an idea." He penetrated experiences of his childhood that had often unconsciously given forms to his dance. "He used the metaphor of a meal for dancers served on a plate, on which were placed the dancer's liver, lungs, and heart. The plate was wide and shallow, and the dancer was encouraged to play with the organs and examine them. This is something that children do unconsciously." (Yoko Ashikawa) Hijikata discovered that his students unconsciously began to move like the children of his native place in northern Japan. Hijikata's personal roots were used as focus to reach the archaic in man. He told an Englishman: "I come from Tohoku, but there is Tohoku in everybody. There is even Tohoku in England." Ashikawa "understood that Hijikata didn't talk on a human level. It wasn't on a personal level, but that he talked to humanity", and she also says, "He realized that he could not be alone and continue dancing, so he found more people within himself."

"Butoh plays with time; it also plays with perspective, if we, humans, learn to see things from the perspective of an animal, an insect, or even inanimate objects. The road trodden everyday is alive ... we should value everything." (Hijikata) "It is a question of tearing down the division in humans and animals and other species. There are lots of different living beings. Just take such a strange living being as man. The question is who first inhabited the Earth. Was it the will, was it the feeling? Man might just be one phenomenon. Is not man the one that is the least similar to a man?" (Akaji Maro)

Butoh's origins are the wholeness of the human spirit, and its way of thinking comes closest to primitive ways. Its aspiration for complete involvement, for a point that makes the artistic performance to a ritual on a spiritual level where dream and utopia appear as real, goes much further than most modern dance, closer to magic rituals. "We have to trace back the history of the body to remote antiquity", Isamu Ohsuka says, who in Bali of the leader of the village his group Byakko-sha visited, was informed that their performance was suggestive of an ancient trance dance. In Eiko Hosoe's film Kamaitachi, Hijikata improvises dances in the rice fields, as the innocent, the fool, possessed by the spirit of a demon who haunts there. Hijikata was "neither modern nor primitive: the two at the same time." (Min Tanaka) One of Sankai-juku's performances is called "Homage to Pre-History" and Tanaka says: "My actual work is to awaken emotions of the body sleeping in the depth of history. It is not necessary to accentuate the presence of the dancer."

Butoh has never, as a movement, had any connection with political or religious direction - its revolt and its spirituality has the body as the center. "The body repeats promises carefully in order to break them." (Min Tanaka) "The patterns of the society are inevitably printed on the body surface as it rolls around on the Earth. (...) Dance emerges between bodies." (Min Tanaka) "The body has something in common with the criminal." (Hijikata) Yoko Ashikawa tells us she was wondering when Hijikata said that a body is "the furthest thing", but when she stood on the floor, she understood it.

"The structure of the body resists the society and its functions raise a fist toward the world. (...) Ankoku Butoh (darkness dance) is a joyous despair. The body does not exist unless one is astonished with its ingenuous state. (...) dance is essentially somebody else's business. To evacuate one's own body, to step into obscure region of matter, to rush to other people's important matters. Or, to constantly steal sensations, and to involve others in a chaotic dance of the mind." (Min Tanaka)

"The young should not become sensual addicts. They need a real desire and must act in accordance with it - dance with it." (Hijikata) "It's alright to call your own way of living for butoh - but I don't like that which is happening on stage to be called butoh. It is rather so that all the way from my birth till I die, I want to dance all the time." (Min Tanaka) Like the dramas of more primitive cultures, butoh opposes a professionalization of its art. Though many dancers have reached an incredible perfection, it is not the technical level which means anything, but the spiritual, and many of the foremost butoh dancers have begun without any other dance background. "The substance of dance technique isn't very interesting." (Hijikata) The newest and most untrained members of butoh companies are from the start directed towards performing on stage, but every helper that has carried things or swept the floor are almost more respected than the dancers, Susanna Åkerlund told me. "Although many people tried to establish the Hijikata myth, they don't know the nameless nature of humankind, self-abandonment, and sacrifice. They should know the nameless nature of butoh. This is the reason why the dancers of Hakutobo always use the family name, 'Ashikawa', and the reason why each dancer has a leading part, because we think everybody is on the same level, and that the leading part has no special value." (Yoko Ashikawa)

The eyes almost closed and the common white make-up contribute to the objectivity, the "impersonality" that is necessary to make the body to a medium for hidden or dark forces. Sankai-juku and others have further added to this through shaving their heads.

Another feature that occurs are bent knees, sometimes totally bandy legs. Hijikata tells about the poor peasants' children in northern Japan, who had to be crammed in with each other in baskets on the fields, crying alone till they passed out. The legs became bent. Ashikawa tells about the moment when she had to stand up after two years of training, crawling on the floor. Hijikata made her wear high clogs and forced her to run. In this way, the "bandy legs" appeared. The bandy legs of the Japanese farmer and to balance on the outer sides of the feet with extreme tension opened the body to accept the wind, and in that open posture the dancer could be transformed into any elemental form. "Straight legs are engendered by a world dominated by reason. Arched legs are born of a world which cannot be expressed in words." (Hijikata)

Butoh wants to transcend the identity of the sex. "There is a fish which is born male, experiences the degeneration of its male organs and ends life transformed into female. This displays the primordial formation of male/female as a whole. It is said this male and female coupled to give birth to an egg ... a strange tale! During its life, this fish experiences both male and female existences ... it contains the origin of Mankind, when the fish first appeared to inhabit the earth." (Ushio Amagatsu) The confusion between the attributes of the two sexes is something that almost only butoh, except for night-club dancers, have taken out from the taboos of the respectable society citizen. Hijikata was the owner of night-clubs and let his dancers earn their living from shows there.

In later times, he almost only worked with women, above all with Yoko Ashikawa. Hijikata especially wanted to uncover woman's original life force and took advice from a dead sister within himself. He avoided rapid and exaggerated movements, kept close to the ground.

Butoh is often very slow. The dancer tries to get rid of his inhibiting conceptions about himself, to be able to be afflicted by any idea or image that can be found in the world. In an exercise called hoko, which Susanna introduced for me, the dancer is led by invisible threads, that are stretched from every body part - strong threads that draw in opposite directions at the same time. As the dancer "goes", he is not on his way anywhere - forward is at the same time backward, upward and downward. The body is thread-on of rails, razor-blade sharp under the feet, through the middle of the body, through the only eye in the forehead and the one in the back of the head. These eyes see instead of the usual eyes, which have been transformed into glass and are just visible under the immobile eyelids that have fallen down and don't blink. In the mouth a frail rose. Light is streaming from the finger-tips. Side by side with the dancer, everywhere around him, doubles of him are walking closely and lead him forward.

Butoh is not a muscle dance. Endurance comes from the spiritual state. The slow, Susanna explained, is only slow-looking. On the level of the contrary powers, the pace is huge. Butoh, thus, expresses something entirely different through using the surfaces of the bodies not as surfaces of physical objects, something "pretty" e.g., but as the point of intersection between the contrary powers.

"Did I create this piece or did this piece create me? (...) Superimposition of the world of reality and the surreal world. Aren't the void and the reality one and the same?" (Kazuo Ohno) The void as that which gives an imprint which is my body, is a necessity for the understanding of myself as a force of nature. If instead the body was transparent, one could penetrate its entire contents. Or if the surrounding air's particles were all visible - then the bodies would disappear. Only one of the surfaces is visible, but two visible surfaces that meet become invisible at the moment of their touch. This darkness is the same darkness that penetrates the bodies. To become aware of this darkness is to become aware of almost all matter in the world. Hijikata remembered his mother's words: "Run with the heart of the blind."


Butoh belongs both to life and death. It is a realization of the distance between a human being and the unknown. It also represents man's struggle to overcome the distance between himself and the material world. Butoh dancers' bodies are like a cup filled to overflowing, one which cannot take one more drop of liquid - the body enters a state of perfect balance. (Ushio Amagatsu)

I wasn't really listening [to Hijikata] with my ears, rather I would place my ears near the knee, for example. (Yoko Ashikawa)

It's a strange habit of mine to put myself in helpless situations. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

Taking into your own body the idea that your wrist is not your own - there's an important secret hidden in this concept. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

I've often said in the past that we don't have time to 'express' and 'represent.' (Tatsumi Hijikata)

The noise of the silkworms chewing on mulberry leaves is endless - 'jyari-jyari-jyari'- it goes on and on. If the man takes a nap while this goes on he'll gnash his teeth 'giri-giri-giri.' As the silkworms chew on, the sound of their chewing becomes synchronized with the sound of the gnashing of teeth. (...) All the elements are linked to each other. If matters always work as they do here, I wonder if dance training is really necessary. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

Although I'm not aquainted with Death, Death knows me. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

It is possible to make a superb dance with the eyes alone. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

The dance must be absurd. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

I abhor a world which is regulated from the cradle to the grave. (Tatsumi Hijikata)

Catching some parts of chaos and creating a total chaos. Catching some parts of the other chaos and creating the other chaos, and you'll find this chaos is completely different from the first chaos. (Akaji Maro)

The Butoh costume is like throwing the cosmos onto one's shoulders. And for Butoh, while the costume covers the body, it is the body that is the costume of the soul. (Kazuo Ohno)

There is something between life and death. (Kazuo Ohno)

I don't think that dance can be seen independently from the notion that man lives. (...) There are always hidden wounds, those of the heart, and if you know how to accept and endure them, you will discover the pain and joy which is impossible to express with words. You will reach the realm of poetry which only the body can express. (Kazuo Ohno)

I am dancing a single dance throughout my whole life. My dance is identical with the everlasting revolution. I recovered my language through dancing, and saw politics through dancing. I will live up to ethics through dancing, and perceive the map of history through dancing. I gained courage to stand against power through dancing. I am re-scrutinizing the 'instinct' through dancing. I want to know God through dancing. I want to encounter matter through dancing. (...) A dancer, in essence, is an anonymous lightning, a medium of the place. This is how I want to be. The endless performance/dance. An attempt to verify dance from the minimal to the maximal by rendering my body as an example. Or an attempt to discover and initiate dance in all places. (Min Tanaka)

This body lives with the inevitable molecular tradition, and it ages in apparent ambivalence. (Min Tanaka)

To wish to be mature is a silly thing, I think. There must be a revolution which, people always consider, has not started yet. It is an incessant revolution - without a pause. It is revolution which one never thinks about. (Min Tanaka)

Somebody said dance is something that visits us. But preoccupied about the structure of the body, I politely abstained from the advent of the dance. (Min Tanaka)

The more people try to understand butoh, the less they understand. But that doesn't matter. There are things like the stars, the moon, which you can't reach. Nothing is so beautiful, so marvellous, as the intangible, the incomprehensible. (Min Tanaka)

A married woman who didn't want any more children would close her thighs almost unconsciously while giving birth. Thus the baby who had just put his head out into the world was promptly strangled. This practice, which was known as tsubushi, also survived until not so very long ago. (...) Every second of butoh is a continuous birth and death. (...) Butoh is both the mother and the baby, an open expression of what lies deep within us all. What we can't, or have chosen not to show. (Junnosuke Yoshiyuki)

Butoh has always existed. The dancer takes form from the environment. The stone and the wind are our teachers, the flies and the birch-tree are our dance-partners, the grove and the dunghill our dance-floor, the autumn leaves and the cows are our audience. (...)

When I dance my hands are not hands, my face not face, my feet not feet. My body is part of the environment. The space inside of me and the space around me are one and the same. When the space around is changed (for life is change) my body is changed as well.

Look at the palm of your hand. The eyes see the palm of a hand. Look at the palm of your hand with your soul and you can see also the upper side of the hand. The butoh dancer puts eyes on each part of his body, on the back of the head, on the forehead, elbows, between the toes, in the rearmost tier of the theatre we put eyes and under the floor and behind ...

The stone exists (or do you doubt?). Whatever I and you say, it stands there in thousands of years, and the moss on the stone, cracks and cavities, the ants crawling around. The light of the sun hits the surface, the shadow of the stone. Everything exists.

That is butoh (Susanna Åkerlund)


 Ushio Amagatsu, interview Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, the 30th of May 1991  Antonin Artaud: On Balinese Theatre, Paris 1931  Michael Blackwood's film Butoh In Japan  Alice Farley: In(visible Woman) and Surrealist Dance, New York in the70's  Ethan Hoffman & Mark Holborn: Butoh - Dance of the Dark Soul, Aperture Foundation, New York 1987.  Tsubushi Butoh Journal no. 1 fall 1990, Tokyo  Hélene Vanel: Poetry and Dance, Arsenal #4 Chicago 1989 (from Cahiers GLM, Paris 1939)  Jean Viala & Nourit Masson-Sekine: Butoh - Shades of Darkness, Shufunotomo Co., Ltd., Tokyo 1988

   Please visit Hans T Sternudd, performance artist in Lund, Sweden, who    participated in the happening project BEAK, involving SU-EN Butoh Co,    Johannes Bergmark and Eva Sjuve, among others.

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   Picture © by Susanna Åkerlund

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