Saturday, November 01, 2008


Butoh: In Time for Halloween

In college, my friend Liz wrote her East Asian Languages and Civilizations thesis on Butoh, a post-war theatrical expression developed in Japan. I'd never heard of it until she began to analyze its roots, relating Butoh to the classical Japanese theater of Noh, with its own stylized and slowly perfected series of movements. As she told me about Butoh, I realized that I'd seen photos in Japan of people painted in white, bearing expressions of deep pain, in advertisements. I'd "seen" Butoh; it was not something my mother and I ever went to see live.

Butoh is a modern performance art form, reflecting the intense change (and pain) Japan underwent after the war and two nuclear bombs. As this site explains of Butoh's founders, Hijikata and Ohno (still alive at 102!):

Hijikata . . . wanted to find a form of expression that was purely Japanese, and one that allowed the body to "speak" for itself, thru unconscious improvised movement . . . Butoh loosely translated means stomp dance, or earth dance. Hijikata believed that by distorting the body, and by moving slowly on bent legs he could get away from the traditional idea of the beautiful body, and return to a more organic natural beauty. The beauty of an old woman bent against a sharp wind, as she struggles home with a basket of rice on her back. Or the beauty of a lone child splashing about in a mud puddle - this was the natural movement Hijikata wanted to explore.

Viewing Butoh, like Noh, takes a trained eye. There are not the quick pyrotechnics we've increasingly become accustomed to in performance. An article in the New York Times gives this advice.

People tend to think of Butoh in terms of aesthetic markers: white body paint, shaved heads, slow movement gained through intense muscular control, and a way of manipulating the body that is at once beautiful and grotesque, tragic and absurd. Influenced by German Expressionism, it tends to be imagistic rather than narrative. But while these elements often appear, defining Butoh in stylistic terms is dangerous. There is the beautiful, highly stylized theatricality of Sankai Juku, or the mad kineticism of Mr. Kasai, or the creaturely abstractions of Yumiko Yoshioka. Like contemporary American dance, Butoh is no one thing, but it always has, at its center, a fragile transformative spark. You can’t always describe it, but you know it when you see it, and you know when it’s missing.

And now that you have been warned, here's a snippet of Butoh performance, by one of the originators of the form.

You can compare this to Noh theater (which I love) and which uses masks--often white--to portray characters. Other emotions rely on gesture.

Of course, it's simplistic to use two little videos to show how two art forms are related to each other, but for the sake of a blog post, I hope you can see some relationship. I think both art forms require us to be patient, and to watch without modern eyes, and to concentrate on details of movement. Meditation in many ways asks us to do the same thing, and an enlightened person--which I definitely don't claim to be--would see a relationship between meditating and experiencing Noh and Butoh.

Modern Butoh can also be more vigorous, and take place outside of a theater or clearly defined ritual space. I like this idea that dance and performance can take place anywhere, that we don't need to clearly define one place for viewing the sacred, and others as only for the mundane.

I bring all this up because my husband bought me a series of tickets to the Joyce Theater this year and our first visit included a trip to see Eiko and Koma, two Japanese born dancers now living in New York. When their program opened, we saw two naked bodies painted in white, posing upside down against a mesh fence. Slowly, tortuously, they coiled and uncoiled into different positions, all intended to display a sense of Hunger, the name of their program. I was able to find this snippet on Youtube, which also displays two proteges from Cambodia, Peace and Charion. (Eiko and Koma don't appear till about 5 min. in).

Eiko and Koma were on "full project" all the time. At all times, I felt their pain. I kept thinking that both were wearing masks, but in fact their faces were simply as adept at conveying emotion as their gnarled feet. Eiko appeared to perpetually be on the verge of dying. Their young proteges were uncomfortably lithe and healthy and fleshy in contrast.

What to make of this slow and painful performance. "I think," I said to my husband, "that was Butoh." We had intended to have dinner after the show, but left feeling anything but hungry. I certainly did not want any rice. We opted for fish and after about twenty minutes of sitting in the cheerful restaurant, discovered that we were hungry after all. The performance had simply affected our appetites. I had a glass of wine. I began to cheer up. Food tasted very, very good. It was a strange experience to leave the theater feeling so hollow to feeling full and to appreciating the color and light of the city.

Is this a theatrical experience I would want to repeat? Did I get it? I'm still thinking. I don't doubt that the performers are wholly unique and that, while uncomfortable, I was very moved by what I saw. Here is what a reviewer said.
The key to a successful Eiko & Koma experience lies in utter concentration. Not theirs, but yours.

Right. This art is hard. Butoh is not like Blue Man Group.

I'm thinking I can probably be convinced to watch again.

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