Butoh: The Dance of the Living Dead

Illustration by Jim Ether after Millet


Butoh, the Japanese “Dance of Darkness,” has been described as a lot of things: bizarre, gothic, perverse, sexy, wild, sensational. No such descriptions are adequate, and for many earnest butoh performers they are simply repugnant. Some purists claim that butoh cannot be explained or described at all (a position not at all new to artists and theologists), or even that it is so innately Japanese that it can never be truly understood by westerners (which is not just a little racist). This reticence among practitioners to put words to the art form invites “inadequate” descriptions from those on the outside looking in. “Sexy, wild, and sensational” is downright flattering next to the “goth” and “shock-art” labels that butoh has often received. Certainly, the experience of butoh or any other art form can never be fully translated into another form, but the ideas that inform the process and allow us to appreciate the experience can be articulated, or else all criticism, all attempts to illuminate the world through writing are futile. Frankly, the purist position is that of dimwits and mountebanks.

I enjoy butoh and believe that it could have a wider audience and be better appreciated if people were not so intimidated by it. Harvest time seems the perfect time to discuss butoh—the time of increasing darkness, of Halloween. The popular understanding of butoh rather parallels Halloween in that there is a focus on the “spooky” and “gothic” superficialities that belie the underpinnings of death and rebirth, spirituality and corporeality, and liminal and compromised states. I will say that Butoh is many things to many people; it has its camps, its enthusiasts and detractors like any other art form, and my attempt to set down core concepts will be viewed as audacious by some, but I’ve already stated what I think of those sorts, and they are free to say what they think of me. As I have stated, it is true that the experience of butoh cannot be described, and it is true that its origins are peculiarly Japanese, but above all it is true that butoh has clear and universal aspects that make it an art form without borders, no matter how others may want to hedge it in.


The Dance of Dullness

Part of what makes it so difficult to approach and understand butoh is that people just don’t much understand or appreciate dance. Full disclosure: I think that anyone who doesn’t enjoy dance in some form is a complete and hopeless dullard. Movement is our first language and dance has been a communal act since time immemorial. One can fairly speculate that the first art was dance (and I always say that the first religion was art), and it remains an important communal act and art form in atomized cultures such as ours. However, the most common use of the word “dance” in pop culture today refers not to genuine communal events or artistic performances, but rather the drunken convulsions one sees in bars and night clubs. Dance is a garnish for conspicuous consumption in ageist mating grounds, not part of a communal celebration.

It seems unaccountable that interest in dance as performance has dwindled when one cannot escape ads selling everything from chewing gum to gasoline through some disingenuous depiction of dance as joyful pageant—a universal language of freedom and delight. In pop videos and concerts, it is a garnish, a selling point for a personality, a lifestyle. It is packaging for a message, usually egoistic, not an expression in and of itself and certainly not a communal act. Even in recent films in which dance is central to the plot, dance is not an art form but a competitive sport. But apathy toward artistic, genuine dance forms is not limited to pop culture fanatics. I was at first surprised when I discovered that some avid art enthusiasts had little interest in ballet or modern dance. They would attend the opera and the symphony, but—mincing no words—dance was “boring.” I could dismiss this as a difference in personal taste—their lack of taste, that is—but this would be lazy. After all, a truly vulgar mind would not choose to watch rotund and orotund divas meandering on stage instead of chiseled dancers displaying their physical perfection…in tights no less!

Butoh is rarely pretty, so its aesthetic has less traditional appeal than ballet and the like, and therefore no presence in the marketplace, for better or for worse. However, in a culture with a demonstrated fondness for the grotesque, one can’t argue that there is no audience for even the most ghoulish butoh performances, the sort that invite “shock-art” evaluations (and may indeed be worthy of them). Aesthetics is not the problem. There is one thing that many classical art forms and butoh share, and which butoh often takes to extremes, that is also an unforgivable sin in our culture; it is slow.

Most classical art forms retard time. When I am explaining opera to those who have expressed curiosity about it but who doubt that they can “get it,” I always begin by acknowledging that it moves more slowly than mass media, and slowing down is a big challenge for us. We are weaned on montages and sound-bites, techniques that compress time, leaving only the salient points, so stripped of context that they cannot even be called facts. Opera goes the opposite direction, stretching into hours a story that could be presented in an eight-minute cartoon, a twenty-minute sitcom. The songs are not in real time. They reveal the inner worlds of the characters, the history and the desires that shape their fates. Everyone has had a moment in life in which days seemed to pass in an instant as one was overcome with emotion, and people appreciate an attempt to capture that sort of experience. This makes opera a relatively “easy sell” to those more accustomed to commercial media. Ballet is trickier because there is no spoken narrative, the plot is even more sparse and simplistic, and the dancing, however spectacular it may be, is not as gripping to modern eyes expecting a circus. Modern dance, with its larger vocabulary of movement, might get a little more attention, but often lacks all narrative, which some find confusing or “boring.” And then there is butoh, which takes a lack of narrative and a slow pace to new extremes that few will appreciate, to put it diplomatically. Instead of “appreciate,” one might fairly say “sit through without gnawing off a hand.”

In another article, I draw connections between butoh and other Japanese dance forms, noh and kabuki. These forms, too, require an appreciation for a slow and measured performance, and these forms, too, will put dilettantes to sleep. Good butoh will occasionally test the endurance of even a seasoned audience, and this has led even some observers to dismiss it as everything from spastic ascetism to dilettantism as performance. Some performers almost relish this, as though enjoy a special status by being fringe. Others simply don’t have the words and merely shrug: “You either get it, or you don’t.” Again, the problem is that few people “get” dance at all, unless one’s definition of dance is being felt up publicly or trying to rhythmically maintain balance after a night of drinking. There’s a time and place for that, and certainly the most ancient dance forms included a lot of both (were even quite religious about it all), but we have evolved a smidge since then.

To summarize: The majority camp of pop culture sees butoh as inexpressibly dull while the minority camp of butoh performers and enthusiasts (shall we say, most artists in general) sees pop culture as dull and damaging. To each other, they are a dance of dullness. Dare we even attempt to reconcile the two?

Yes. Yes we do.

Page 2: The Transgressions of Butoh >