Butoh: The Dance of the Living Dead – Page 3

Illustration by Jim Ether after Millet

The Dance of the Living Dead

Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn.

Body language is our first language, our first way of saying, “I am.” The way that one occupies and moves in a space can show aggression, submission, attraction, all the most basic emotions and states for which we have words and some for which we have no word. For some species, it is an instinctual form of communication. Birds do it; bees do it; I imagine that even educated fleas do it. The greater complexity of humans makes us no less affected by the power of dance, even at our most civilized. Dance has been and remains utterly essential to humans, and as cultures develop, so shall new forms of dance, such as butoh.

Body language is individual and of the moment, but dance represents a people within history, whose peculiarities have been shaped by their social and natural climates and the physical demands thus created. It can be quite puzzling for one on the outside looking in. (I’m of Northern European descent, but don’t ask me to explain Polka.) Add costume and music, and the dance—whether social, ceremonial, artistic—becomes a crystallized expression of its parent culture. (Don’t ask me to explain lederhosen, either.) You’ll find it in hoedowns, tango, bergamask, rain dance, butoh, all dance.

As in all communication, to appreciate dance in full requires context; an audience can appreciate foreign dance as a novel spectacle, but to stop there is to accept appearance over substance. Mass-media has us all quite willing to do just that, often because there is no substance left by the time that it reaches us. The body itself is abstracted and intellectualized, no longer a whole entity but a collection of troublesome parts (each with accompanying products, which together create a lifestyle) that degrade and leave us (the “real” us, trapped in a body) infirm and unattractive, and we have already established how little we like that. Dance in this mode becomes the abstraction of an abstraction, which is tedious in itself, but especially when an audience attempts only to understand it rather than feel it. Dance requires the body, but only to express the spirit (the “real” thing), and so to shun or ignore dance is to impoverish the spirit’s ability for expression. But no…our bodies are an embarrassment, the enemy of abstract perfection, and most of us don’t care to learn our enemy’s language.

Butoh requires no partner and no audience. It does not require even a stage. Butoh is all-terrain; it even thrives in irregular spaces where other dancers would be tripping and receiving career-ending injuries. Butoh doesn’t require a vocabulary of movement to be perfected. It demands rehearsal, but every practice, solitary or in a group, is a performance in itself, a meditation. I do not say this to suggest that it is superior to other dance forms for this; this is simply a distinction worth making and one of the reasons why I think that all dancers could benefit if they incorporated butoh into their training. Meanwhile, to witness it and appreciate it is a tonic for all who struggle with fear of declining health and fading youth—that is, fear of life.

Butoh is called the “Dance of Darkness” because it confronts things considered dark or ill, the Jungian Shadow. But in this there is an affirmation of the light. The ghosts and demons of butoh are a memento mori. The practice of butoh tasks performers with rebirth as much as death, expansion of self as much as loss of self. Such liminal states are always disturbing. Rod Serling called it The Twilight Zone, not The Midday Zone. Autumn time, harvest time is one of those liminal zones, and it is no coincidence that most every culture placed their day of the dead near the harvest time, when day and night became equal again, approaching the deepest darkness and the suspension of life through the winter. Halloween was a time to honor the dead, when the membrane between the corporeal and spiritual became thinnest, but it took on its more gothic and demonic (according to ignorant evangelicals) aspects just when the absolute grip of religion on Western culture was experiencing its own twilight, after the Enlightenment, in the nascence of industrialization and mechanization that has unleashed its own demons and inhumanity.

Butoh could only happened in a post-industrial society; it simply would not have been tolerated in an earlier age, but it also wasn’t necessary then. Our ancestors knew disease and war and violence that was no less horrible than that of our age. We’re just much more efficient about genocide these days. One thing they did not know was how to prolong life. People did not return from war with shell shock and disfigurements. They simply died. People did not linger through years of disease through medications. They simply died. No doubt, they would have wanted what we have, but even we do not fully comprehend the effects of our duel with death and the way in which we have rendered it invisible, as Phillip Aries so eloquently (and encyclopedically) argues in L’Homme Devant la Mort. But death isn’t going anywhere for now, and facing it is still the great challenge in affirming life.

I have heard butoh called primal; I would rather call it ancestral. It nods to the natural passage of life, accepting that even the aged and infirm and, indeed, even the dead are still part of the dance.

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

All the same, one wonders whither butoh will go from here. Certain critics have suggested that the whole form is already stale, that it never had enough variety to last and was doomed to hit a dead end eventually. This smacks of a fetish for novelty on the part of these critics (the sort that these same critics might accuse butoh performances of exhibiting in the absence of other content), and it certainly misses the point of butoh, but as I said in beginning this article, they can’t be blamed when butoh has been treated by some like the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The form is not exhausted, even if it does not change at all, but change is inevitable. I believe that butoh will gradually become more open and well received as time passes and its applications increase. There will be cults of style and schools of thought, but most people just don’t have patience for the mystery religion stuff, not even the ever-patient butoh performers. Individuals may take themselves too seriously and still produce good art, but if an entire art form cannot be comic as well as tragic, light as well as grave, then it is seriously unbalanced—flawed even—and a lack of balance is precisely what triggers change. It’s what brought about butoh, after all. Similarly, effective art and protest may be iconoclastic, but it is not misanthropic. It may show us hell, but it should not tell us that we are all going there. After the harvest, there must be rebirth, says the old wisdom.

Redeeming the market from my slander for a moment, a wider audience for butoh will allow for more recognition, more talk, and therefore allow for repertoires to be established. This is anathema to some, an affront to the iconoclasm they cherish, but here we begin to enter the territory of iconoclasm for the sake of iconoclasm…once again, a fetish for novelty unbecoming of the butoh form. It is myopic to suggest that there are and will be no great butoh pieces worth entering into a canon. It is the individual performance that will determine how moldy a piece is or is not, and I am sure that people will have no trouble burying and exhuming pieces as they see fit, according to an intuition and a sense of time and place, not because they are beholden to an audience that demands to see one piece or another once more (such as in the world of ballet).

All of this is speculation, but one thing seems certain to me: Butoh is here to say. Dostoevsky wrote, “Nihilism has appeared among us because we are all nihilists. We are only frightened by its new form.” Butoh has appeared among us because we are all practicing it on some level, always have been. It is ageless, borderless, timeless, at once young and old, distinctly Japanese and universal. It is dance, and it doesn’t get much more universal than that. Yet, as modernity transforms humans into ideas and numbers and machines, the old exemplary dance forms seem a little too on the nose. Butoh and other subversive arts arise to restore the balance—inevitably. And we are all participants, for butoh welcomes the young and old, the strong and the weak, as each becomes the other—inevitably. And where do we all inevitably go?

O dark dark dark. We all go into the dark…