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Butoh (舞踏 Butō?) is the collective name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh (暗黒舞踏 ankoku butō?) movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.


Butoh appeared first in Japan following World War II and specifically after student riots. The roles of authority were now subject to challenge and subversion. It also appeared as a reaction against the contemporary dance scene in Japan, which Hijikata felt was based on the one hand on imitating the West and on the other on imitating the Noh. He critiqued the current state of dance as overly superficial.

The first butoh piece, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) by Tatsumi Hijikata, premiered at a dance festival in 1959. It was based on the novel of the same name by Yukio Mishima. It explored the taboos of homosexuality and paedophilia and ended with a live chicken being held between the legs of Kazuo Ohno's son Yoshito Ohno, after which Hijikata chased Yoshito off the stage in darkness. Mainly as a result of the misconception that the chicken had died due to strangulation, this piece outraged the audience and resulted in the banning of Hijikata from the festival, establishing him as an iconoclast.

The earliest butoh performances were called (in English) "Dance Experience." In the early 1960s, Hijikata used the term "Ankoku-Buyou" (暗黒舞踊 – dance of darkness) to describe his dance. He later changed the word "buyo," filled with associations of Japanese classical dance, to "butoh," a long-discarded word for dance that originally meant European ballroom dancing.[1]

In later work, Hijikata continued to subvert conventional notions of dance. Inspired by writers such as Yukio Mishima (as noted above), Lautréamont, Artaud, Genet and de Sade, he delved into grotesquerie, darkness, and decay. At the same time, Hijikata explored the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as those of animals. He also developed a poetic and surreal choreographic language, butoh-fu (舞踏譜) (fu means "notation" in Japanese), to help the dancer transform into other states of being.

The work developed beginning in 1960 by Kazuo Ohno with Tatsumi Hijikata was the beginning of what now is regarded as "butoh." In Jean Viala's and Nourit Masson-Sekinea's book Shades of Darkness, Ohno is regarded as "the soul of butoh," while Hijikata is seen as "the architect of butoh." Hijikata and Ohno later developed their own styles of teaching. Students of each style went on to create different groups such as Sankai Juku, a Japanese dance troupe well-known to fans in North America.

Students of these two great artists have been known to highlight the differing orientations of their masters. While Hijikata was a fearsome technician of the nervous system influencing input strategies and artists working in groups, Ohno is thought of as a more natural, individual, and nurturing figure who influenced solo artists.


There is much discussion about who should receive the credit for creating butoh. As artists worked to create new art in all disciplines after World War II, Japanese artists and thinkers emerged out of economic and social challenges that produced an energy and renewal of artists, dancers, painters, musicians, writers, and all other artists.

A number of people with few formal connections to Hijikata began to call their own idiosyncratic dance "butoh." Among these are Iwana Masaki (岩名雅紀), Tanaka Min (田中民), and Teru Goi.[2] Although all manner of systematic thinking about butoh dance can be found, perhaps Iwana Masaki most accurately sums up the variety of butoh styles:

While 'Ankoku Butoh' can be said to have possessed a very precise method and philosophy (perhaps it could be called 'inherited butoh'), I regard present day butoh as a 'tendency' that depends not only on Hijikata's philosophical legacy but also on the development of new and diverse modes of expression. The 'tendency' that I speak of involved extricating the pure life which is dormant in our bodies.[3]

Hijikata is often quoted saying what opposition he had to a codified dance: "Since I believe neither in a dance teaching method nor in controlling movement, I do not teach in this manner." [4] However, in the pursuit and development of his own work, it is only natural that a "Hijikata" style of working and, therefore, a "method" emerged. Both Mikami Kayo and Maro Akaji have stated that Hijikata exhorted his disciples to not imitate his own dance when they left to create their own butoh dance groups. If this is the case, then his words make sense: There are as many types of butoh as there are butoh choreographers.

Starting in the early 1980s, butoh experienced a renaissance as butoh groups began performing outside Japan for the first time. The most famous of these groups is Sankai Juku. During one performance by Sankai Juku, in which the performers hung upside down from ropes from a tall building in Seattle, Washington, one of the ropes broke, resulting in the death of a performer. The footage was played on national news, and butoh became more widely known in America through the tragedy.[5] A PBS documentary of a butoh performance in a cave with no audience further broadened knowledge in America.

In the early 1990s, Koichi Tamano performed atop the giant drum of San Francisco Taiko Dojo inside Grace Cathedral, in an international religious celebration.[citation needed]

Butoh's status at present is ambiguous. Accepted as a performance art overseas, it remains fairly unknown in Japan.[citation needed]

Butoh in popular culture

A Butoh performance choreographed by Yoshito Ohno appears at the beginning of the Tokyo section of Hal Hartley's 1995 film Flirt.

Ron Fricke's experimental documentary film Baraka (1992) features scenes of butoh performance.

In the late 1960s, exploitation film director Teruo Ishii hired Hijikata to play the role of a Doctor Moreau-like reclusive mad scientist in his film horror movie Horrors of Malformed Men.[6] The role was mostly performed as dance. The film has remained largely unseen in Japan for forty years because it was viewed as insensitive to the handicapped.[7]

In the Bust A Groove 2 video game released in 2000, the final boss' style of dance battle is butoh, set to a very fast and experimental Japanese techno track.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa used butoh movement for actors in his 2001 film Kairo, remade in Hollywood in 2006 as Pulse. The re-make did not feature butoh.

Butoh performance features heavily in Doris Dörrie's 2008 film Cherry Blossoms, in which a Bavarian widower embarks on a journey to Japan to grieve for his late wife and develop an understanding of this performance style for which she had held a life-long fascination.

A portrait of Kazuo Ohno appears on the cover of the 2009 Antony & the Johnsons album The Crying Light.

Butoh has greatly influenced the Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows, the musical project of Anna-Varney Cantodea. Its visual motifs are used in for the project's publicity photos and videos.

Initial butoh dancers

Hijikata's female principal dancer was Yoko Ashikawa. Ashikawa lives in Japan. She no longer makes public performances.

Yukio Waguri was a young student in the last company of Tatsumi Hijikata. Waguri still lives in Japan, teaches, and performs all over the world.

Another principal dancer for Hijikata was Koichi Tamano. Tamano made his United States debut in 1976 at the “Japan Now” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Hijikata called Tamano "the bow-legged Nijinsky," a quote later rendered in English by Allen Ginsberg.

Ko Murobushi was responsible for bringing butoh to Europe in the 1970s. He and Akaji Maro started the company Dairakudakan in Tokyo.

Butoh exercises

Most butoh exercises use image work to varying degrees: from the razorblades and insects of Ankoku Butoh, to Dairakudakan's threads and water jets, to Seiryukai's rod in the body. There is a general trend toward the body as "being moved," from an internal or external source, rather than consciously moving a body part. A certain element of "control vs. uncontrol" is present through many of the exercises.[8]

Looked at from completely scientific standpoint, this is rarely possible unless under great duress or pain but, as Kurihara points out, pain, starvation, and sleep deprivation were all part of life under Hijikata's method,[1] which may have helped the dancers access a movement space where the movement cues had terrific power. It is also worth noting that Hijikata's movement cues are, in general, much more visceral and complicated than anything else since.

Most exercises from Japan (with the exception of much of Ohno Kazuo's work) have specific body shapes or general postures assigned to them, while almost none of the exercises from Western butoh dancers have specific shapes. This seems to point to a general trend in the West that butoh is not seen as specific movement cues with shapes assigned to them such as Ankoku Butoh or Dairakudakan's technique work, but rather that butoh is a certain state of mind or feeling that influences the body directly or indirectly.

Hijikata did in fact stress feeling through form in his dance, saying, "Life catches up with form,"[9] which in no way suggests that his dance was mere form. Ohno, though, comes from the other direction: "Form comes of itself, only insofar as there is a spiritual content to begin with."[9]

The trend toward form is apparent in several Japanese dance groups, who merely recycle Hijikata's shapes and present butoh that is mere body-shapes and choreography[10] which would lead butoh closer to contemporary dance or performance art than anything else. A good example of this is Torifune Butoh-sha's recent works.[8]

A paragraph from butoh dancer Iwana Masaki, whose work shies away from all elements of choreography.

I have never heard of a butoh dancer entering a competition. Every butoh performance itself is an ultimate expression; there are not and cannot be second or third places. If butoh dancers were content with less than the ultimate, they would not be actually dancing butoh, for real butoh, like real life itself, cannot be given rankings.[3]

Defining butoh

Critic Mark Holborn has written that butoh is defined by its very evasion of definition.[11] The Kyoto Journal variably categorizes butoh as dance, theater, “kitchen,” or “seditious act.”[12] The San Francisco Examiner describes butoh as "unclassifiable".[13] The SF Weekly article "The Bizarre World of Butoh" was about former sushi restaurant Country Station, in which Koichi Tamano was “chef” and Hiroko Tamano "manager". The article begins, “There’s a dirty corner of Mission Street, where a sushi restaurant called Country Station shares space with hoodlums and homeless drunks, a restaurant so camouflaged by dark and filth it easily escapes notice. But when the restaurant is full and bustling, there is a kind of theater that happens inside…”[14] Butoh frequently occurs in areas of extremes of the human condition, such as skid rows, or extreme physical environments, such as a cave with no audience, remote Japanese cemetery, or hanging by ropes from a skyscraper in front of the Washington Monument.[15]

Hiroko Tamano considers modeling for artists to be butoh, in which she poses in "impossible" positions held for hours, which she calls "really slow Butoh".[citation needed] The Tamano’s home seconds as a “dance” studio, with any room or portion of yard potentially used. When a completely new student arrived for a workshop in 1989 and found a chaotic simultaneous photo shoot, dress rehearsal for a performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, workshop, costume making session, lunch, chat, and newspaper interview, all "choreographed" into one event by Tamano, she ordered the student, in broken English, “Do interview.” The new student was interviewed, without informing the reporter that the student had no knowledge what butoh was. The improvised information was published, “defining” butoh for the area public. Tamano then informed the student that the interview itself was butoh, and that was the lesson.[citation needed] Such "seditious acts," or pranks in the context of chaos, are butoh.[11]

While many approaches to defining butoh—as with any performative tradition—will focus on formalism or semantic layers, another approach is to focus on physical technique. While butoh does not have a codified classical technique rigidly adhered to within an authoritative controlled lineage, Hijikata Tatsumi did have a substantive methodical body of movement techniques called Butoh Fu. Butoh Fu can be described as a series of cues largely based on incorporating visualizations that directly effect the nervous system, producing qualities of movement that are then used to construct the form and expression of the dance. This mode of engaging he nervous system directly has much in common with other mimetic techniques to be found in the history of dance. For example Lecoq's range of nervous system qualities, Decroux's rhythm and density within movement, Zeami Motokiyo's qualitative descriptions for character types, etc. Such methods heavily leverage mechanisms of suggestion typical of hypnosis. In this author's experience, when studying with various students of Hijikata, a tradition of Butoh Fu seems to be a common trait, more pronounced than in students of Ohno. The continuity of Butoh Fu as a methodical approach to training and building performance does provide a line of analysis for traditional continuity and dissemination, just as do parallel techniques do for other performance traditions.


Teachers influenced by more Hijikata style approaches tend to use highly elaborate visualizations that can be highly mimetic, theatrical and expressive. A good example of this teaching would be Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, founders of Harupin-Ha Butoh Dance Company[16] (who own and operate the Tamasei Sushi restaurant in San Francisco).

Teachers who have spent time with Ohno seem to be much more eclectic and individual in approach, bearing the mark of their master, perhaps, in tendencies to indulge in wistful states of spiritualized semi-embodiment.

There have been many unique groups and performance companies influenced by the movements created by Hijikata and Ohno, ranging from the highly minimalist of Sankai Juku to very theatrically explosive and carnivalesque performance of groups like Dairakudakan.


Many Nikkei (or members of the Japanese diaspora), such as Japanese Canadians Jay Hirabayashi of Kokoro Dance, Denise Fujiwara, incorporate butoh in their dance or have launched butoh dance troupes.

Butoh is also created and performed by non-Japanese Canadians – Thomas Anfield and Kevin Bergsma formed BUTOH-a-GO-GO in 1999 billing it a "Second Generation Butoh/Performance Company." Anfield and Bergsma met in 1995 working with Kokoro Dance.

The multimedia, physical theater-oriented group called Ink Boat in San Francisco incorporates humor into their work. Another San Francisco performance troupe, COLLAPSINGsilence was formed in 1992 by Terrance Graven, Indra Lowenstein, and Monique Motil. The group was active for 13 years and participated in The International Performance Art Festival in 1996. They often collaborated with live musicians such as Sharkbait, Hollow Earth, Haunted by Waters, and Mandible Chatter. The Swedish SU-EN Butoh Company tours Europe extensively. Another prominent butoh-influenced performers is the American dancer Maureen Fleming.

More notable European practitioners, who have worked with butoh and avoided the stereotyped 'butoh' languages which some European practitioners tend to adopt, take their work out of the sometimes closed world of 'touring butoh' and into the international dance and theatre scenes include Marie-Gabrielle Rotie,[17] Kitt Johnson (Denmark) and Katharina Vogel (Switzerland). Such practitioners in Europe aim to go back to the original aims of Hijikata and Ohno and go beyond the tendency to imitate a ' master' and instead search within their own bodies and histories for 'the body that has not been robbed' (Hijikata).

Eseohe Arhebamen is the first African butoh performer and practices a style she calls "Butoh-vocal theatre".


  1. ^ a b Kurihara, Nanako. The Most Remote Thing in the Universe: Critical Analysis of Hijikata Tatsumi's Butoh Dance. Diss. New York U, 1996. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996. 9706275
  2. ^ Kuniyoshi, Kazuko. An Overview of the Contemporary Japanese Dance Scene. Tokyo: The Japan Foundation, 1985; Viala, Jean. Butoh: Shades of Darkness. Tokyo: Shufunotomo, 1988.
  3. ^ a b Iwana, Masaki. The Dance and Thoughts of Masaki Iwana. Tokyo: Butoh Kenkyuu-jo Hakutou-kan, 2002.
  4. ^ quoted in Viala 186
  5. ^ "The Dance: Sankai Juku Opens", Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Coelho, Abel. "A Compilation of Butoh Exercises" Honolulu: U H Dept. of Theatre and Dance 2008
  9. ^ a b Ohno, Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno. Kazuo Ohno's World from Without and Within. Trans. John Barrett. Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 2004.
  10. ^ Viala 100
  11. ^ a b Dance Kitchen, Dustin Leavitt, Kyoto Journal #70
  12. ^ "Dance Kitchen", Dustin Leavitt, Kyoto Journal #70
  13. ^ "Bizarre and Beautiful Butoh at Lab", Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner, Dec 1, 1989.
  14. ^ "The Bizarre World of Butoh", Bernice Yeung, San Francisco Weekly, July 17-23, 2002, cover and p15-22
  15. ^ Butoh, Mark Holburn and Ethan Hoffman, Sadev Books, 1987
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^,

Tatsumi Hijikata

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