From Underground Art to Shiny Visions

by Ari Tenhula

Butoh, a branch of Japanese contemporary dance, evolved in the late 1960s and the early 1970s during the politically stormy period of student riots, art happenings, and radical agitprop performances. Tatsumi Hijikata (1928–86) is regarded as the founder of butoh. He studied various styles and techniques, among them the German expressionistic Ausdrucktanz, under several Japanese teachers.

Hijikata began his career as a choreographer with such anarchistic and revolutionary performances that his relationship with the Japanese mainstream dance world broke up. In his later works he created a kind of basic butoh technique, which distanced itself from Western dance aesthetics.

In the 1950s and 1960s the innovative avant-garde theatre was searching for a new kind of depth and possibilities of human consciousness. As everywhere, so too in Japan, the circus-like freak effects fascinated the audiences.

These new forms of performances were taken to their limits, for example, by pushing a living eel into a dancer’s mouth and pulling it out through his nostril. This kind of effect, of course, creates a shiver in the audience and thus also a kind of pleasure. In the same way, the dancer’s unnaturally twisted body language of the butoh technique creates the effect of a shock in spectators who are familiar with a totally differently codified body language.

Hijikata Enters the Stage

The early butoh premiers were sensational happenings. The first rows of the small auditoriums were not reserved for the dance elite but for about fifty photographers who were witnessing and documenting something extraordinary for the media.

Tatsumi Hijikata created his butoh pieces in a highly experimental spirit. The extreme limits of the human body were tested to see how slow the movements of the human body could be, what the body’s reactions to a constant stream of impulses were, etc. The physical manifestation of nervous impulses, which is shown by the constant trembling of the dancer’s body, now one of the clichés of butoh, was originally a sensational innovation in the aesthetics of dance.

The dancer’s nearly naked body was either painted white or covered with mud, gold and even lacquer, which led to situations in which the dancer’s skin could not breathe any more and he was hurried off to hospital. Most often, however, the dancers’ bodies were covered with the dust from the cellar studios, and the dust was washed away only after hours of painting stage sets, sewing costumes and preparing props.

Much changed in the 1960s. It was a period of political and ideological discussions and argument. New kinds of films were created (Hijikata-Hosoe), as well as new kinds of photography and graphic design (Yokoo). Of course, the situation in Europe was similar too, and the new generation of Japanese artists was fully aware of the trends in Western avant-garde. For example, the influential writings of Antonin Artaud were quickly translated into Japanese.

Native and Local versus Tokyo

After his drastic experiments with the dancer’s body Hijikata became interested in the myths and folklore of his native northern Japan. He came to realise the imprint that hard labour and a low-protein diet left in the bodies of the people of the region. He wanted to find the movements and dance that were characteristic of those kinds of bodies.

From this staring point, Hijikata created several choreographies in Tokyo, in a milieu which was the busiest and most Westernised in the whole of Japan. Hijikata and his wife owned several nightclubs in Shinjuku. In the clubs his dancers could perform and earn some money in order to practise their real art. Several butoh artists gained their experience of performing from the show context rather than from the actual dance stages, which is also reflected in their tastes and artistic choices.

Schools and Styles

Gradually there evolved two distinctive categories of butoh, that of the urban “city butoh” and that of the more agrarian “country butoh”. The former is characterised by its playfulness, innovations and shocking effects, while the latter is more meditative in its search of an authentic mode of life. The styles and trends were gradually intermixed, which again created new types of butoh.

The early underground cellar studios were replaced by scattered groups with their own studio stages and audiences. In order to follow the various trends of butoh in the Tokyo of the 1980s and 1990s, one had to travel from one city district to another, from small room stages to big auditoriums or to variety festivals.

Where do the money and the audiences come from?

Small, well-designed leaflets with their maps and ticket information are distributed either between the theatre programmes or outside the theatre. They may advertise dozens of performances which will take place at various venues in the near future.

The artists really need their audience, since most often there is no public support. It is common for the dancers to get their share of the income generated by ticket sales only if the whole performance season is completely sold out. The situation is not made easier by the Japanese convention according to which dance critics write about the last performance of the production.

Outside Japan

Many Japanese butoh artists found new opportunities through international festivals in the United States and Europe in the 1980s. Thus butoh also found new audiences in the West. Since Kazuo Ohno, a first generation butoh artist, several other artists as well as butoh troupes have also toured the West. Among them are the Ariadone and Sankai Juku groups, Anzu Furukawa with her Dance Love Machine group, and Min Tanaka.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, in the West, there evolved numerous butoh centres at which hundreds of dancers and choreographers have studied. Meanwhile, butoh again went through changes while, at the same time, its style and technique were canonised.

The authentic characteristics of butoh, such as the white-painted, naked and twisted body, have become more or less clichés. By repeating these external “signs” of butoh, many artists have tried to legitimise themselves as “butoh artists”.