Dance Dance Convolution – Page 2

Noh Country for Old Men

Noh may have been mostly for entertainment from the beginning, but it had a pervasive morality that came with the ritual dance and song and religious myth from which it borrowed. Noh plays often have no story let alone a specific lesson, but there is always a prayer. The prayer itself is the heart of the performance—the center of a delicate, multifoliate lotus. However, the prayer is not said on behalf of the audience as in a religious ceremony. If it is said on anyone’s behalf, it is usually for the main character, known as the shite (pronounced shee-tay, one should carefully note). The shite can be a person or a god or the spirit of a person, a place, or even a plant. The prayer can also be a general reflection on the goodness of the current system and the gods. In essence, noh plays are sometimes just ornate, dramatic hymns. Placed together, a series of noh performances become something like a sermon conducted by artists rather than religious authorities—but we have already established that the two were quite bound to each other through service to the ruling authorities at the time.

Sets are unnecessary and little may occur in a play, but poems about the place paint a mental image and establish an oral history that is the real mise-en-scene. In noh, the past seems more important than the present because the present arose from it and yet the past persists in some way. He who had more connection to the past similarly has more value. Typically, noh’s ghosts and lessons exist in a Buddhist universe, while its myths are syncretic or Shinto, but its practice is Confucian through and through. Noh as we know it may have been given its start because a shogun had a thing for a young man named Zeami, but that young man grew up and ever since then the practice has preferred older men who can achieve the ideals of noh, especially concepts known as hana and mushin.

Hana (hah-nah) means “flower.” In the realm of butoh, the bud is the central idea of the character being presented, and the flower is the full realization of it. The bud cannot be pried open by force, but must be coaxed open with the utmost delicacy, a nigh spiritual channeling of character achieved through mushin (moo-sheen, literally “no heart/soul”). Mushin could be vaguely likened to the concept of method acting in that actor “becomes” the character, not merely portrays the character. But method acting is for complex characters, not the archetypes that populate the noh stage. To become archetypical, the actor must master a worshipful economy of movement and purity of form, which is observed in many Asian arts and practices, including the tea ceremony. In this philosophy, the essence of a thing is best depicted through the least number of strokes, the least movement, in a way that still appears effortless and uncalculated, and this can only be achieved through meditation and years of practice. Hence, there is absolutely merit to the appreciation of the mastery of the old. It is at the cost of personalization and idiosyncratic expression, and to artists who want their art to be an expression of self, this will never be appealing. To artists who believe—as T.S. Eliot says of poetry—that performance is an escape from self, it is ideal.

Only the shite wears a mask, and the other character (the waki, pronounced wah-kee) does most of the talking and praying, setting the stage and providing the history without explicitly breaking the fourth wall. The most common prop of the performance is the fan carried by each character, which is used in the dances and dramatic movement and can be decorated to reveal aspects of the character who carries it. The collapsing fan is itself an apt symbol for the whole performance: the gentle unfolding of the hana into a fully realized image, the expansion of time in its pacing and even in its compression of past and present, bringing ghosts and living beings together.

The mask worn by the shite is bound with the loss of self in mushin. This reflects a most ancient and ecumenical belief in tribal ritual that a mask-wearer indeed channels and becomes a goddess or spirit or ancestor. In noh, there is no possession, only a skillful performance, which is mystical enough in itself. Further, the mask presents a distance between the actor and the audience and the subject matter, creating an abstracted sublimity, a Buddhist detachment free of sensationalism and bathos. Some may argue that greater restraint makes it a more civilized art (it certainly seemed so when it was the only game in town), but now it can appear self-indulgent in its restraint/civilization. That is, it is so certain about its practice, so assiduously preserved that it demands a rare degree of confidence and comprehension from its audience. When it first appeared, kabuki was its polar opposite, and it would take a long time for it to win regard from cultural connoisseurs.

 

The Best Little Whorehouse in Tokyo

Kabuki borrowed from noh, but I have already stated that kabuki theatre was a proto-Hollywood and the morality that it espoused was equally dilute—usually summed up as “crime doesn’t pay” and “bitches be shoppin’.” Kabuki was populist and commercial, and as burlesque it often borrowed and bent the content and style of other dramatic arts—also including kyougen and puppet theatre. The softer branch of kabuki known as wagoto more resembled noh. The aragoto style would more closely resemble puppet theatre. In both styles, there was more action than in noh, and the costumes and sets were thus designed to allow more movement and special effects. The hana of noh was not essential for a fine performance, but other concepts took its place.

The proscription against women in kabuki created a need for highly skilled female impersonators known as onnagata (own-nah-gah-tah, “female shape”) who would in their performances portray such ideal femininity that, as before, men would fall in love. The perfection of this craft called for the best onnagata performers to live their private lives dressed and moving as women. It is a leap to say that these men were cross-dressers or gay or transgender, as the line between performance and identity is quite blurry in this case, but it is true that many of them had romances with men. In all events, unlike the restrained (nigh paralytic) female characters of noh, the onnagata embodied an exaggerated femininity of perfect grace end elegance to the point that women would strive to imitate these imitators, making these men the original it-girls. (This also distinguishes the onnagata way from drag, which often employs camp and an exaggerated femininity meant to parody gender roles, not exemplify and uphold them.)

In direct opposition to hana, in kabuki one has the mie (mee-ay), a dramatic pose that will be recognizable to anyone who has seen a Japanese woodblock print of kabuki performance, and is more associated with aragoto (rough style). Hana sought to minimize the self and reveal a spiritual essence, but the mie is the pinnacle of ego, the point in which the character (usually a warrior) assumes a striking pose that unleashes his powerful will and vanquishes the enemy once and for all, even though to modern eyes he may look like he is just trying to vanquish a bowel obstruction and going cross-eyed in the process. It is the dramatic climax of the performance, accompanied by instruments and shouts from the actors and chorus and occasional special effects.

The mie was one of Ichikawa Danjuro’s primary innovations for kabuki. The other was the face paint, known as kumadori (koo-mah-doh-ree). Numerous kumadori designs were created to help audiences identify characters and their attributes and to accentuate the features of the lead actors when they struck their potent poses. Arterial red makeup was a sign of goodness and divinity. Venous blue makeup was venomous and venal, a sign of death and corruption used for ghosts and villains. Brown and grey were used for monsters and beasts.

Now for a little more history: By the time that kabuki was established, so had been a wealthy and influential merchant class. The ranks of samurai were the official authorities, but they were not uniformly successful. There were those who owned land and those who pawned their swords. The relationship between the merchant nouveau riche and the samurai was tenuous, and a lot of old wheels were greased by new money. Still, for centuries the official power rested firmly in the hands of those connected to the samurai tradition, and it was in the best interests of those writing the puppet and kabuki plays to continue glorifying the samurai code (bushido). The heroes were warriors and the villains were monsters and bandits…and a few corrupt merchants.

Heroism and loyalty and fealty were lionized. Most romances ended in Liebestod, especially ritual suicide to preserve the honor of the lovers. In the pleasure quarters that flourished in the centuries of civil peace following centuries of tribal war, in what was called the ukiyo, the “floating world of sorrow” (to combine two distinct meanings for the word), kabuki was at the center of it all, to the dismay of the ruling powers. Kabuki upheld unobjectionable principles, but the practices and the peripheral businesses remained too disorderly for the paranoid shoguns, and it remained degenerate art. Kabuki was also so egoistic that in it an individual will could bend reality. In legends throughout the world, the defeat of the great “monster,” whatever form it takes, requires the great hero. The hero and the monster have equivalent capacities for destruction (though the hero often proves more cunning). What separates the monster and the hero is their raison d’etre: to either destroy or protect, to either control or be controlled, respectively. The moment a hero is no longer the champion (i.e. the tool) of the people, he might become the monster. Thus, anything that glorifies individual will and stokes the flames of individual passion could be considered dangerous in a culture that lauds group politics and cooperation, as one never knows who might disastrously declare themselves the next hero and therefore become a monster.

As for the plays without heroic action, the romantic tragedies glamorized selfish and irrational passions, ending in double-suicide and inspiring real-life imitators—because there is nothing sexier than disembowelment. These plays were banned for a time in 1723, after inspiring a love-suicide pandemic. The shoguns would continue to stymie kabuki until their fall in 1868, which initiated a cultural resurgence for the newly rebuilt theatres. However, those who had dissented against the Tokugawa shogunate and helped install the Meiji emperor (therefore securing positions throughout his administration) were also samurai and still had little taste for kabuki. It would take decades of gradual modernization in kabuki before it was appreciated for its artistic merit, culminating with a performance sponsored by the emperor himself in 1887. By then, after decades of national modernization (in the interests of resisting westernization) kabuki was one of the few entertainments that still captured the public interest and was wholly Japanese. The bushido virtues translated well into a time of vigorous nationalism, and when war broke out decades later, kabuki became all the more nationalistic, sometimes blatantly propagandistic. In response to this, the allied forces banned kabuki performances for a time after the Japanese defeat. Performances resumed in the late ‘40s.

Kabuki was not meant to be instructive or disciplined like noh and it certainly wasn’t an accurate mirror of society. It was in every sense a proto-Hollywood, with celebrities and even promotional media. There is no denying that it was art, but as with most theatrical traditions (I include even Shakespeare) there was always something whorish about it, and I don’t mean the heavy eye makeup. Actual prostitution aside, to survive the innovators of kabuki did everything in their power to capture public attention while whitewashing its vulgarity with appeals to state-approved norms and beliefs. Into the 19th century, kabuki pandered to higher powers until it earned their respect; that is, it had become something that fell in line with what they wanted for Japan. Of course, art everywhere was generally only successful if it was fashionable and approved by the oligarchs and moral authorities; art has only recently become somewhat democratic. Kabuki simply gets worse rap here because it was driven by money and vulgar tastes, too. Tsk tsk.

Kabuki’s tradition of increasing spectacle even brought the creation of Super Kabuki in the 1980s, which added lasers and fog to further modernize it, bringing it closer to the contemporary puppet theatre that we call anime. Cultural critics who could not appreciate (or at least find amusing) the historical consistency in this were disgusted, but judging from history such a revision was overdue; kabuki had already been on the verge of becoming quaint by the outbreak of World War II, after 60 years of frantic industrialization and social transformation. This influx of foreign elements had disrupted two centuries of cultural purity and would climax with two very big bangs. The arc of history did not just bend; it became scattershot. And from those ashes of wild transformation in which Japan seemed to lose itself, the ashen doll of butoh would emerge. The critics really didn’t know what to do with it

 

A Different Bent

Hijikata Tatsumi spent his formative years in northeastern (Touhoku) Japan, long considered the most rural and inaccessible part of the main island, Honshu. Matsuo Bashou’s famous Oku no Hosomichi was written during the revered poet’s travels through the wild countryside, austere sacred mountains, and extreme climates. To this day, Touhoku remains conservative, traditional, and largely dependent on agriculture. It is thus not uncommon to see elderly people bent permanently forward at a 90-degree angle after a life of labor in rice fields. Hijikata’s visions of this and other infirmities in post-war Japan partly inspired butoh. Not a strong samurai, not an elegant maiden, not a fearsome god nor a menacing monster, but the most fragile and thus—to a population fighting to reclaim its vitality—the most repugnant figures became his artistic subjects.

Ankoku butoh as he called it, “the dance of darkness,” used archaic language to make its initial point. Butoh was an older word for ballroom dancing that used kanji denoting roots in folk dance. (Incidentally, the bu character in butoh is the same bu as in kabuki.) The word “butoh” has another apt association: The neurological affliction causing involuntary movement known as chorea in English (from the same root as “chorus”) is called butohbyoh (“(butoh) dancing sickness”) in Japanese. Butoh movement can resemble chorea and some may scoff at this, but I consider it a credit to butoh as a true dance of the people, a dance for the infirm as well as the vigorous, a folk dance that would remain so unlike noh and kabuki, which diverged from their folksy origins. I suspect that some critics will liken butoh to folk art, art brut, outsider art, etc. for this reason, with various levels of respect or disdain, and butoh dancers will continue undaunted, as any dedicated artists should.

Another distinction of butoh after noh and kabuki was its early refusal to support or pander to social norms. Butoh sought the strange, etiolated things living in the shadow of Japan’s crumbling cultural monolith, the long shadow cast by the Rising Sun. Hijikata was not exploring moral darkness (versus light), but something closer to Jung’s shadow: untapped, primal potential that manifested as despair and confusion when left unacknowledged. Hijikata’s darkness was not despair and depression itself, but it contained within it the potential for such unpleasant emotions. Both the performer and the audience must accept the existence of this unpredictable darkness if a butoh performance is to be appreciated.

Indeed, initial responses were less than appreciative, and this time there was no need for a shogunate to intervene; the dance community themselves banned Hijikata from the stage after his first performance, in which a chicken was strangled between his thighs. I do not really blame them for their lack of prescience and the belief among some that this debut was merely a gratuitous display of fetish. However, the dance community at large would not re-evaluate their position even after later performances that did not end with a limp cock. There’s just no accounting for taste. Quite at odds with public taste, butoh at first seemed doomed to utter obscurity (which may have suited everyone, including Hijikata, for all I know), but artists of other disciplines came to the defense of Hijikata and his collaborators. Kazuo Ohno was the other most influential founder of the butoh movement, as the two worked closely together initially. However, Ohno and Hijikata developed distinct styles and there remain separate schools that lean toward the style of one or the other…or still others who have since established their own style.

To pursue that presently would be too much, I’m afraid. For now we should consider the common ground. All involved wanted butoh to be a distinctly Japanese dance, but what does that mean? Dance is universal; it transcends boundaries of race and nations and ideology. How could one who seeks to tap into the past expect to also represent a modern nation, especially one that is at once stratified and unsettled? Butoh was not a nationalistic art as kabuki or noh, but rather a primal form of movement emerging from a distinct place and time, namely post-war Japan. Butoh as we know it could not have formed anywhere else, however it may capture international imaginations. Hijikata indeed succeeded in creating something uniquely Japanese when he took those first, stilted, bare-assed, chicken-strangling steps; it was a dance form that reflected a shattered national identity by shattering individual identity in its practice, and in trying to avoid even a whiff of the canon it was poised to become a movement more than a classifiable art form. It was inevitable that such a movement would splinter as quickly as it spread.

The general aesthetic, however, has been relatively consistent over the years: chalky makeup; convulsive expressions and movement; sets, costume, and music tending toward minimalism, but occasionally accommodating full spectacle; choreography balanced with spontaneity; an approach toward liminal states surpassing mere affectation; a rejection of the purely rational self and the formal gorgeousness that appeals to it; a slow pace, often without narrative, creating an experiential frame for the audience, who must then fill it just as the performers render themselves as frames to be filled. (For a more in depth look at certain qualities, see the article Butoh: Dance of the Living Dead.)

 

Noh, Kabuki, Butoh: The Rundown

Reading this list of butoh aesthetics, one may notice things vaguely reminiscent of noh and kabuki, the similar but divergent qualities to which I have alluded from the beginning. Armed with a basic knowledge of the three forms, we can consider a range of differences and similarities item by item.

Let us begin with the makeup, for the predilection for white face in both kabuki and butoh may draw the quickest comparisons. The kumadori of kabuki achieved an almost mystical quality for some; after performances, actors would press handkerchiefs to their faces allowing the wet makeup, infused with the sweat of their efforts, to bleed into the cloth, and these prized tokens were given to patrons and fans. One can think of them as a precursor to autographed portraits, but they were so much more, for the energy of the performance, the essence of the portrayal was also said to be infused, and an impression made of a face that had not performed would not have that special magic. Again, we find built into kabuki an unabashed egoism that promotes celebrity and a will so powerful in its performance that even its gooey residue becomes magnetic.

Typical butoh makeup, keshi (keh-shee, “rice powder”) is just the opposite. It creates anonymity, dissolves distinguishing features head to toe while drawing attention to the orifices to enhance the expressions they form. Kumadori enhances the stern stoicism of a determined face. In butoh, the white face enhances abandon, ecstasy, and agony, periods when the mind has stepped out for a moment. The makeup even decays and flakes, a visible reminder of the body’s constant molt, its impermanence, and the impermanence of other things explored in butoh, leaving only dust when the dance is over. The fact that it is (or at least imitates) rice powder, the dusty remains of the staple food of Japan, that primary fuel for the Japanese body and also the crop whose harvest permanently bent Hijikata’s ancestors, certainly adds its own cultural and symbolic power.

Then there is noh, which employs a mask for the exploration of a specific character and which persists after the performance for generations, itself a work of art. The craft of such masks was so particular and exquisite that they were highly esteemed even before they became important cultural artifacts, largely because they were necessary to the performance of noh. What is implicit here again is a strict control of who could perform noh and where and when—more authoritative superego. The anonymity afforded by the mask may at a glance resemble that of butoh (which may also use masks at times), but here the mask also serves as a mechanism of control, which butoh would never allow.

Continuing from that point on anonymity, we can compare the mushin of noh with the meditative loss of self in butoh. They share a fundamental mindlessness but from there quickly diverge. Noh summons a limited gallery of ideals and archetypes and immortals, selected from a closed universe. I do not wish to imply that this is a defect; I believe that even this limited gallery has limitless potential, or at least more potential than writers and performers have been allowed to explore. Meanwhile, butoh’s universe is explosive. It invites performers to become everything from a zygote to an elephant to a broken window.

Kabuki, again all will, counters with the mie, that exceptionally mindful, willful, yet seemingly apoplectic pose, which persists in updated forms in transformation and battle scenes in manga and anime today. The ego is ever present and on a mission in kabuki. Butoh responds to the mie with convulsion and spasm, poses that look just as apoplectic when taken out of context but instead suggest a complete lack of control, a body or alter self that has usurped the usual pilot of this body.

Aside from the all-important mask and a few other props, the minimal noh sets at least allowed a performance to take place in any open, relatively flat area. Kabuki was sequestered to theatres where sets were developed for special effects (in addition to the standardized layout of walkways and choral sections). Individual butoh performances can go either way—completely minimal or thoroughly designed—but as a practice butoh is all-terrain. It is free in the fields, as sarugaku once was, and it can be site-specific like other modern performance art. It is not as narrow as either of its predecessors, which again makes it harder to pin down for some.

Butoh is perhaps above all characterized by its elusiveness, which is incorrectly equated with elitism. Noh is elitist. Kabuki, if it isn’t elitist, is certainly not humble. Butoh is not meant to be elitist, but in the hands of some it may become that. Noh presented an ideal world, so perfect that those who sponsored the art placed it in amber while it was still young (for its own good, of course). This was a world where everything had a place and should know its place, a fixed world where order was supreme. Kabuki bucked that as part of the rise of merchant classes and entrepreneurs, and even though it told the old legends, it suggested that new ones were ready to be made, inspiring ambition and defiance in its audience. This was a changing world, where the individual will was supreme. Butoh emerged from the ruin of the two mythic worlds: the myth that there was perfect order handed down from above and the myth that individual had a fighting chance against global shifts, wars, disaster. Butoh’s world is one in which the only fixed thing is perpetual change, with introversion so dense that it practically forms a singularity, explodes the eternal present into a million teeming timelines, and chaos is supreme. Yet, through this chaos, through the same natural tendencies that allow borders and states to flux, allegiances to turn and cultures to crumble, the humble human creature can inhabit and be inhabited by countless things. This path goes through the much-maligned id, the undifferentiated shadow of desire that is shared by hero and villain, human and god and monster alike.

 

Dancing With the Stars

It is perhaps too easy to embrace moral ambiguity in our age in our comfortable, relatively liberal western culture. Those wartorn periods of the world acquainted our forebears with changeable, volatile, fearsome parts of humanity that we hope to never encounter. The beliefs that trickled down from the ruling classes to the lower classes were a necessary means of maintaining order, and the ruling classes being the source were expected to be the exemplars of it. How effective this was and how stifling and destructive the aristocratic, feudal, and elitist caste system was in producing actual security and harmony for the less fortunate members of society is still up for debate, but that is a debate for another time and place. Let it suffice to say that just as I do not fault the innovators of kabuki for being whores and panderers, I do not categorically fault the authoritarian powers of the past for trying to maintain peace at the expense of free expression; they were only human and they had their reasons. We hope for better in our own time, but we know that with greater freedom come other perils thanks to the trial and error of others.

The ability to discuss—or even embrace—moral ambiguity regarding intention is the hallmark of a culture that has begun to suppress physical violence and unrest, and this creates environments where spiritual and emotional violence can thrive, thereby renewing the need for clear cut ethics. But this sort of abstraction is beyond most people, and we defer to authorities, who too often benefit from a lack of such ethics. The arts resonate one level higher, the realm of feeling itself, and it should be evident from the number of theories and disagreements around this realm that we are all stabbing rather blindly at it. (The preceding sentence itself could be accused of being hollow theory for its hierarchical placement of art. Lalala.) In Japan this deference for one theory, one approach, one master has been quite evident. The strict controls on noh created dynastic lines of performers. It happened with kabuki, too. Innovators in every craft and art, from the tea ceremony to stoneware, establish their schools of practice and acquire adherents that equate too much deviation with imperfection and laziness, not innovation (even though their mentor made it work).

So what of butoh, which should naturally oppose such aesthetic fundamentalism and was established in a way that refused to be categorized by tradition or be explained away and reduced to a few tenets? Only time will tell. Various theories will come along to provide insight, more or less specific: Butoh as a reaction to the horror and turmoil post-war. Butoh as a reaction toward modernity. Butoh as surrealist theatre. Butoh as Dadaism. Butoh as a peculiar product of an individual. The last possibility is to me the least useful, and yet it may be the one that allows butoh to ossify into a sort of mystery religion if practitioners try to decide (in a wholly traditional way when viewed with noh and kabuki) what butoh is according to the butoh constitution unwritten, unspoken by its founding fathers. For now, butoh simply has its star troupes, its leading teachers, and I hope it remains that way.

So here we are, back in the present, which is a very fine place to be. The distinctions between the forms should by now be clear, their reputations tarnished (along with mine), and all can be better appreciated in light of each other, more different than alike but still bound by history and the yearning to express what it means to be human through the body itself. And, in the case of kabuki, still capable of putting me to sleep. La.