As a tribute to Japan, which is in the middle of a huge disaster, today I present butoh dance.
Butoh loosely translated means stomp dance, or earth dance.
Bu = dance, toh = stomp
Its founders were a young rebellious modern dancer named Tatsumi Hijikata (1928 -1986), and his partner Kazuo Ohno (1906 – 2010).
“The best thing someone can say to me is that while watching my performance they began to cry. It is not important to understand what I am doing; perhaps it is better if they don’t understand, but just respond to the dance.” -Kazuo Ohno
As Don McLeod observes, 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. Hijikata grew up in the harsh climate of Northern Japan in an area known as Tohoku. The grown-ups he watched worked long hours in the rice fields, and as a result, their bodies were often bent and twisted from the ravages of the physical labor.
These were the bodies that resonated with Hijikata. Not the “perfect” upright bodies of western dance, or the consciously controlled movements of Noh and Kabuki. He sought a truthful, ritualistic and primal earthdance. One that allowed the performer to make discoveries as she/he created/was created by the dance.
If you like the dance you saw in the clip above, you can investigate further in the page of Greylodge podcasting.
In the Guardian’s obituary to Kazuo Ohno, Antony Hegarty notes:
“In 1938, Ohno had been drafted into the Japanese army as an intelligence officer. He spent nine years in China and New Guinea, and was held for two years as a prisoner of war. Ohno presented his first solo performance, Jellyfish Dance, in Tokyo in 1949. The performance was thought to be a meditation on the burials at sea that he had observed on board a vessel bearing captives to be repatriated to Japan. The young artist Tatsumi Hijikata was hypnotised by Ohno’s performance that night, and their destinies became entwined. With Ohno as his muse, Hijikata spent the next several years developing Ankoku Butoh-ha – “the dance of utter darkness”.
Using memories of maternal love and the archetype of the divine child as the basis for much of his tender expression, Ohno frequently reduced his audience to tears. Traversing the stage in a hypnotic reverie, he would gesture skyward with his long, curling hands. He was a masterful and exacting improviser, and performed in schools, gardens and hospitals, as well as avant-garde institutions around the world.”
Ohno’s stage career lasted more than five decades after an unusually late start: His first performance was in 1949 when he was 43. His most acclaimed work was a 1977 homage to noted flamenco dancer Antonia Merc called Admiring La Argentina – he was inspired to begin his own dance training after seeing a Merc performance in Tokyo in 1929.
Ohno’s other best-known works are My Mother (1981), a solo honouring his mother and their relationship, and The Dead Sea(1985), which, as its title suggests, is a meditation on death and spirituality. Two other significant works, Flowers-Birds-Wind-Moon (1990) and Water Lilies (1987), were inspired by Ohno’s travels to Italy.
Sankai Juku is a Tokyo-based butoh group. Back in October they performed in Chicago Ushio Amagatsu’s signature work Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away. Here is an excerpt of a review:
“…. and the experience was unsettling, maddening, hypnotic and beautiful. I realize that’s a wide range of descriptors, but it’s true. The ghost-white, bald male dancers weaved around a stage dusted in fine sand, while shallow glass bowls resembling giant contact lenses collected water dripping slowly from urns above. An eclectic score — flipping from simple, repetitive piano cords and wind chimes to distressing electronic landscapes — set the eerie and unsettling tone. We were transported from birth, to life, to death, and ultimately: rebirth.”
I owe the discovery of butoh to “Cherry Blossoms”, a film by Doris Dorrie. Try to see it, it is worth it!
In the movie the butoh dance is set in the context of the blossoming cherries. A homeless street performer induces a middle aged German man to the meaning of butoh.