Butoh: The Dance of the Living Dead – Page 2

The Transgressions of Butoh

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Before one can hope to reconcile opposing forces, one must first determine what one side considers transgressive about the other, and there is much beside butoh’s pace that transgresses against popular tastes and culture. A slow pace, after all, is something that is forgiven in older arts (as with older people), but which is inexcusable in younger forms that should be quick and exciting—as with younger people, of course…

I must offer this prolepsis before I am accused of being too preachy: If you can’t acknowledge the perils of something without shunning it, you’re rather screwed in this perilous world, and so I do not hate popular culture, or the market place. I simply hate when these things dictate ethics and aesthetic judgment. Art that transgresses against these standards will face the most ire and must be most vigorously defended. Butoh began as a dance of protest, and so it remains. Thus, criticism dealing with it necessarily approaches discourse on how physically and mentally destructive popular culture can be. It is an important discourse and one that is too often directed only to the choir when it happens at all. Viva la revolucion, if you please, but this not about pure ideology and content.

Content and form are the double helix of art, but one does not predetermine the other. Butoh can be affirming or depressive, ordered or anarchic. Butoh form marries well to content dealing with identity and isolation, but there is no monolithic consensus about these subjects. Practitioners can be sympathetic to popular culture and incorporate it deftly, which induces some to question whether it is butoh. To them, I would suggest that art is not just the simple act of making lemons into lemonade, but making lemons into orange juice—creating the unexpected. Thus, because form and content are bound, and the content is often protest—or at least a howl at the moon—the focus here remains on form and its inherent transgressions. I identify four in particular, which are:

  • Loss of self, antagonistic to egoism
  • Torpor, antagonistic to speed
  • Spontaneity, antagonistic to precision
  • Infirmity, antagonistic to soundness


Against egoism

Hijikata Tatsumi said of the butoh experience that it is as if one’s own body becomes a doll controlled by an outside force, as one’s own will is given over to something distinctly not of the self that is ordinarily in control. Call it the solar plexus. Call it the body in its entirety. Whatever it is, it is not the self usually calling the shots. The body does the talking for once. Such a concept is simple yet compelling. It’s also the start of the problem with accepting butoh for many people. It draws scorn from those who feel threatened by what is unfamiliar or “mystical.” It also might inspire arrogance from the practitioner who, with no small measure of irony, thinks a little too highly of his or her self and abilities to channel the non-self.

That’s just the beginning. Popular culture is consumer culture, wherein the majority of creative output is propaganda for a product or a whole lifestyle fashioned out of a collection of products. The effectiveness of such marketing is proportional to how well it can induce a sense of supremacy in an individual, which first requires that the individual feel isolated. Modern modes of travel, dwelling, and communication have that first step covered, so half of the work is done for those with products to sell (i.e. all of us). Maintaining egoism is vital to the market, and so it is in fact lauded, even when it throws a deep shadow of self-destruction and abandon as people test the limits of their own supremacy. What is not helpful to the market, and what is therefore derided by popular culture, is anything that suggests that people should step outside of the carapace of lifestyle and then outside of themselves, or even dissolve themselves in anything but gross pleasure. If the self is all-important, then anything that prescribes a loss of self is to be reviled. That would be butoh.

The loss of self is disturbing even outside the influence of popular culture. Life instincts are essentially selfish, whether or not you believe in the existence of altruism and the possibility of transcendence from this mode. A loss of self makes one truly vulnerable, and every creature on this planet avoids vulnerability unless there is something that makes the risk worthwhile. And there is for us. The great paradox is that the self is developed most when it loses itself, when it is expanded by new and unfamiliar experience, first reaching into an uncharted space and then filling it. This is true not just for butoh but any creative, academic, or spiritual exercise. A self-centered approach to an object, a person, a performance, or an event will not bring expansion, but will simply shrink the stimulus to fit comfortably into a preconceived slot, becoming mere trivia. The substance will be lost in grasping at the shadow, which suits the egoist fine, as a shadow may obscure things, but it won’t take up any room.

So herein is the great transgression of loss of self: By losing and thus expanding the self, there is less isolation and therefore less hunger, less ease in convincing the no-longer supreme self of what it needs to be happy, and that is bad for business. All art is capable of this, and all artists especially know this as they can lose themselves in their work in a meditative way. But butoh is outright confrontational about it. The practice of it invites the loss of self and performances of it challenge the audience accordingly.

The remedy to this culture clash between butoh and popular taste regarding self—as with nearly every conflict—is humility from both sides: on the popular side, earnest regard and a willingness to step outside one’s self; on the butoh side, a balance of lightness that never takes itself too seriously about losing and therefore expanding the self. Is it not, after all, for the sake of expanding one’s capacity for joy and delight that one should desire to expand oneself?

Well, I certainly think it is.


Against speed

Illustration by Jim Ether after Millet

As with our resistance to a loss of self, instinct can be partly blamed for our resistance to torpor, for survival often goes to the fleetest. But once again, markets can take what is a base instinct and make it a moral imperative. Slow is bad—end of story. This is true enough if you are a prey animal (as humans were and, in fact, still are in the wilderness), and efficiency is a wonderful thing, but there seems to be a limit to how fast humans can go from task to task, place to place, idea to idea without burning out, and it seems that we are fast approaching that limit. It is all the more ironic when the goal of efficiency is to have more time for play, rest, and meditation…to have time to take it slow.

One could simply say that people are not comfortable with silence and meditation, with a pace that forces them to be with themselves, and for some this would be true. One might also say that people are spoiled by instant gratification, making it impossible for them to enjoy artistic expressions wherein resolution is delayed or suspended entirely. That covers a lot of butoh, actually. To Bertolt Brecht, who like the originators of butoh was inspired by the climate of confusion after World War II, dramatic catharsis left an audience in a complacent afterglow, and so he intentionally abjured the use of it in his works in hopes that the audience would leave still buzzing and resonating, wanting to take action and not just reaching for a post-coital cigarette. Somehow, his work hasn’t yet become a darling of popular taste either…

But all this aside, slower works reward an attention to detail, an appreciation for what would be overlooked in the frenetic pace of mass-media, whose aforementioned knack for compression and fragmentation rewards a disdain for detail. We can benefit from flexing our attention spans a bit, from doing a little work to access what is unfamiliar. I would never argue that the audience must do as much work as the artist; this argument is used to justify prankster laziness, of which the art world will not soon  run short.

So here is where form and content go separate ways for most viewers and critics: Content can be challenging for the audience, but form should be easy for the audience. Even the most savvy art enthusiasts seem to think so. And yet some of the most truly challenging content will require the audience to think and feel sharply, and form plays an enormous part in that. Challenge is a measure of degrees, as when a body builder increases a weight load by a few pounds or a runner sets a new goal for speed. Not everyone can or wants to run a marathon, but only a jerk dismisses running a marathon as pointless and freaky. Even at its most extreme, butoh should not be dismissed just because not everyone can run that mental marathon. By the same token, its practitioners should not dismiss those whose minds and tastes are not up to the challenge. Elitism is even more jerky, after all.

Butoh movement is not always physically slow, but it is fair to say that butoh is usually slow in “getting to the point.” On this, I must side with some of the butoh mystics and say that sometimes there is no specific point and that is just fine. Not all performance is narrative. Not all art is concept based. Installation artists such as Serra and Calder and Turrell are not asked to elaborate on the “point” that is being made. Art may simply create a space and a mood. Dance fundamentally does this through movement that alters our relation to space. The moods evoked vary enormously between idioms. Butoh is less assured and more pensive than many other forms. Despite that, it is also more spontaneous…another problem.

Against precision

I think that the torpor of butoh would be more forgivable for art dilettantes and connoisseurs alike if butoh were more graceful. As it is, most people will view it as sloppy and self-indulgent, having placed value judgments on what is graceful and precise versus what is jarring and irregular. Need I say again that this stems from natural instinct? We don’t like dissent, tantrums, seizures, even when it is all safely happening on a stage, safely out of arm’s reach but in plain view. We may not like it, but that does not make confronting it any less important. There is art that aims for the head and there is art that aims for the solar plexus, the dark, second brain, according to DH Lawrence. That is where the movement of Butoh may originate. It’s certainly where a lot of our most profound emotions seem to collect. Butoh wants to knock the sense and the wind out of you, and some performances make the dancers act as though that is what just happened to them.

It may seem a jarring leap to make here, but let us draw some parallels between butoh and Japanese calligraphy. Prior to the act, there is considerable training and a clear idea of the character to be drawn. It is not an improvisation. But for an artist, each character will have its own…well, character, its own mood determined by the spontaneous method, the quality of the paper, the thinness of the sumi, the heaviness of the stroke. You only get the one chance; each performance/drawing will be different. This uniqueness is to be appreciated, not lamented, even if one ultimately prefers one rendition to another. So it is with butoh, which does not emphasize a perfect, mechanical order to its productions.

Of course, look closely enough at anything and you will find imperfections (or distinctions, if you will), be they pimples or wrinkles or rips. Our modern aesthetic tries mightily to buff out and paint over imperfections, from aerospace and ergonomic shapes to pictures of celebrities and staged rooms impeccably designed, appointed, and seemingly void of messy, messy life. In butoh, there is choreography. There is great physical strength and endurance. There is all this and the spontaneity that one sees in other modern dance styles and in jazz. Butoh simply does not hide its flaws, and in its attention to what is small, what is gradual, it allows human frailty and imperfection to be put on full display.

Compare this to classical ballet: Look closely during a pas de deux, when the female stands en pointe and is turned slowly, gracefully by the male, as in a music box. Even the most seasoned, strong performers will be shaking from the toes up, however subtly, and they will do their best to create an illusion of straightness and stillness while the body is thrumming with exertion. That’s called self-control, and we all like it very much, especially in those around us. For at the heart of this is a desire for efficiency and invulnerability that I have already discussed above, but these are traits we want for ourselves. There is something else to this that we want from others and our environment: predictability. And so what is wild, what is spontaneous and disordered is necessarily problematic in a modern idiom.

The predictable, the familiar, the standardized, the orderly—these are the things we want for ourselves in a brute universe that may have order on the macroscopic level, but seems quite chaotic from where we stand. Things and people that are abnormal have historically been demonized, or have had their abnormalities blamed on demons. In our age, the demons have really just taken new names as disorders that are no better understood, no less feared by most people. Treatment of the afflicted is but marginally more humane. This is butoh’s last and greatest transgression: It allows for infirmity.

Against soundness

Hijikata Tatsumi was reared in the northeast of Japan, a rural and agrarian section divided by lengthy mountain ranges, dotted with holy mountains, several of which are sacred to the dead. I lived several years in this region. To this day one can see ancient men and women permanently bent double by years of rice tending and harvesting. I mentioned to friends at the time to friends that I wanted to create dishware in a form of subversive kitsch that depicted these elderly people with opening in the back where the steamed rice would be served as a reminder of the human cost. Hijikata’s reaction was a little more elegant and sympathetic; he created a dance form with these people in mind.

I have stated elsewhere and I will state again here that it is to the credit of Confucian cultures that elder performers are lauded and admired. Sometimes this goes too far and the presence of elder masters becomes a stifling thing that slows innovation as it preserves tradition, creating schools of performance that in their fundamentalist approaches remind us that art and religion have more in common than many would care to admit. Unsurprisingly, this tendency exists is found in butoh, too, but fortunately it has the distinction of not being ageist in either direction and it is less likely to fossilize for this reason.

But back to the transgression against popular culture: Certainly, tradition itself is at odds with the modern push for progress and novelty, but tradition is not yet a problem for a young and iconoclastic form such as butoh. Our culture just isn’t very fond of anything old, worn out, tired. Maintaining health and beauty is a major preoccupation, one of the largest industries in existence. A dance form that actively depicts senescence and infirmity (and loss of self) is throwing one of our biggest demons in our face—the inevitability of our own decay, the fact that, “though art’s hid virtue is not found, all is not sweet, all is not sound.” Even the makeup, the ghostly white face for which butoh is often known, in its cracking and flaking and dusty dissipation, is a powerful image of the quiet, constant decay of living things.

Animal wiring has us associate attractiveness with health and health with goodness. Not so long ago, homely women might become spinsters, a dangerous thing to be, for when shit hit the fan for no apparent reason in a community, this “witch” would be blamed and would suffer horribly for the crime…of being homely. We have not come that far since then. What is crooked physically is still the reflection of a crooked essence. What is ill is still demonized. Butoh acknowledges that we are all on the threshold of illness, of decay, of crookedness, which can inspire sympathy or revulsion. Dare I say which is the more common reaction?

The great irony is that in attempting to achieve physical perfection (which is unsustainable if not entirely impossible) people become self-annihilating. What results is an ascetism that desires just a moment of adequacy that, unfortunately, seems to be even more elusive than an eternity of enlightened oneness. To embrace imperfection, frailness, the ultimate breakdown of one’s physicality is actual life-affirming in comparison. Butoh form teaches this implicitly, even when it is not central to the content being portrayed.

Alas, this is veering too close to content again. The crux of this final transgression is that butoh does not discriminate based on age and fitness (or sex, I might add). Of course, a more athletic, younger body will be more capable and can take the dance in different directions, but like older Japanese dance forms butoh will allow for an old master to continue performing as long as they like. For some, this will just be annoying. Dance audiences love a spectacle, love seeing the human body at its finest, its most graceful. Such dance forms are aspirational, the glittering mountain peaks. Butoh is humble. It is of the fields.

Page 3: The Dance of the Living Dead >