A human being is a soul that has a body. Not the other way round. This soul, this consciousness tries to find its way in this world and to grasp a meaning in it. Every art form is an expression of this search for meaning and purpose – including dance, if it does not primarily serve the purpose of highing. When dance expresses what is in a deepened or intensified way, it can be a shattering experience for the viewer. For this “is” always contains a deep longing for what can or should be. And even – or particularly – if the depiction of the human condition through physical movement does not correspond to our ideas of beauty and sublimity, it can nevertheless speak precisely of this: Of the deep, all-pervading longing for redemption and salvation.
Ankoku Butoh, the ” treading dance of darkness”, began in 1959 with a short but highly scandalous performance by Tatsumi Hijikata1, which he had conceived together with Yukio Mishima2. It was more what would have been called a “happening” in the world of Western modern culture, a bloody ritual drenched in sexuality. But the brief performance – and the fierce public reaction to it – sparked a veritable explosion of artistic activities in Japan. It is said that these were directed against the established forces, against conservatism and against Western influences, and it is certainly true that Butoh was triggered by such boundary conditions, that it was a reaction to the situation in postwar Japan. But it is far too short-sighted to see the artistic efforts of Butoh only as an “against something”. This art form is about a “for”, namely about finding an authentic, true expression of the condition of the earthly (here specifically: the Japanese) human being – and finally losing oneself in the struggle for this expression.
Now there is the question what a contemplation of this strange dance art has to say to someone who strives for a true humanness, strives for overcoming the limitations of the polar nature and its laws in some way. We will see.
In the European world, dance, in the form of ballet, has developed into a highly formalized, artistic language of the body, in which every movement, every form, gives expression to an upward urge. The jumps and pointe dancing give the impression of weightlessness, making the body seem to levitate; the posed, upright posture, often with arms raised and head pressed into the neck, makes the dancer seem tall and straight, their gaze directed into the distance or skywards. It is a physical world of expression “lifted up” in the truest sense of the word, in which the idea of a “heaven” of an “above” to which man is to aspire finds expression.
Of course, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a counter-reaction. Expressionist dance – “Ausdruckstanz”3 emerged, and from it what we know as “modern dance”. In Wim Wenders’ film “Pina. Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” we see one of the most mature variants of this “free” form of modern art dance. It becomes clear that in the process of liberation from the formalisms of ballet, something else has also been lost: the transcendent aspects of classical ballet. Modern dance expresses realities of life: interpersonal, mostly games of desire, rejection, connecting and disconnecting, weakness and strength, growth and destruction. Of ethereal and astral effects it knows only the elemental and nothing of an “experience” of transcendence (unless such a thing is a contradiction in terms anyway).
Butoh was born also under the influence of the “expressive dance” of the twenties, but it does not imitate it. After all, Butoh comes from a culture that lives with its spirits. The cult of the ancestors has kept the “Japanese soul” free for the perception of what we call the forces of the other world, and these are not only connected with the dead, but are present in everything and with everything. You can relive this by reading Mishima – or Murakami, or see it in the films of Studio Ghibli4, to name just a few striking examples.
Watching a Butoh event (the term “performance” does not do it justice), there is a strong impression that the dancer is possessed by forces that move him. Something ethereal expresses itself directly in the physical body. Kazuo Ohno5, the other founder of the Butoh movement, explicitly spoke of his deceased sister residing within him and expressing herself in his dance. At the age of 75, in one of his dance performances, he “channeled” another woman, the dancer “La Argentina,” who had inspired him as a young man with her dance. As you watch, you get the feeling that “La Argentina” is there, using Ohno the human being only as a means of expressing herself – but at the same time, he remains fully visible and active.
As Western seekers, who pursue the idea of an astral, an emotional hygiene, and who want – also in spiritual terms – clear, logical relations, purity, we perceive all this as gloomy and somehow grubby. We see the bonds into which the Butoh artist enters and which, we may perceive, drag him down deeper and deeper, down into this nature. What should be “liberating” about this, we ask ourselves.
Hijikata describes a key scene from his early childhood: the parents worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset and it was customary to put small children in a basket and leave them there, near the field, all day so that they would not run away. Whether they were hungry, soiled or in pain, it didn’t matter. They cried out, no one cared, and they stopped again. Hijikata says, “When you sit in the dirt like this, you have strange experiences. The head and the feet are suddenly exchanged and on the soles a mouth opens and sucks the mud. (…) I can assure you that my dance was born out of the mud. “6 Taking into account the sensitivity and receptivity of a child’s soul, surely the experience of a nadir of human existence can be recognized here.
What does Butoh do with experiences of this kind? It accepts them and expresses them until they detach themselves from the person who made them and gain an etheric presence as autonomous condensations of experience. The dancer enters a state of purposelessness: he or she has just taken what was present in their microcosm and has turned this darkness inside out and given it form.
We are still told to learn that the “shadow must be integrated” – the Japanese Butoh artist lives with the shadow and expresses it – in fact, one could say: he sacrifices himself to it, he lives for the shadow. This is at first a state of utmost boundedness. However, this does not “happen” unconsciously, but is specifically sought, deepened, lived through. The human being puts itself completely into dependence, it sacrifices, as it were, its striving for higher consciousness. This is visible: the posture is bent, the legs curved outward, the soles of the feet turned inward, the direction of dance is often downward, toward the earth – a counter-image to the dance form of ballet as we know it. And while the “striving upward” of Western ballet threatens to become ever more superficial and vain, this striving downward has the potential to become ever deeper and more self-effacing. It sometimes points into a sphere of transcendence. The Butoh dancer is not a person who dances occasionally, he lives the dance, he loses himself in it.
Butoh then also has a closeness to Zen that is not sought, but arises by itself. It takes the dancer’s own, mostly childhood, experiences as a great koan-of-life, and hopes to grow beyond the struggle for response. Here, as there, it is about self-loss and the overcoming of purpose.
Our ideas of purity, freedom and self-realisation are culturally shaped. But the path to self-conquest can be started from many places, and not all of them are bright. What happened on Golgotha? Don’t we all have to go through this depth, this consciously experienced suffering, in order to be resurrected as a new being? Is it not precisely the experience of pain that leads us out of our imprisoned state? We overcome nature not by ordering it or by denying it, but by going through it completely, as deeply as we have to. The Conditio Humana is not negotiable. It can only be overcome by life itself. This is what – among others – Butoh can show us.
From this perspective, the alienation we may have initially felt towards what Butoh puts before us gives way to a kind of love that we feel towards this battered nature – a love that we can also apply to what we ourselves still are, alas.
1 – Tatsumi Hijikata (9.3.1928 – 21.1.1986), tenth of eleven children of a peasant family from Akita, studied tap, jazz, ballet, flamenco, and expressive dance in Tokyo after reportedly surviving for some time by robbing and stealing. His work was inspired by surrealism and authors such as Mishima, Lautreamont, Genet and de Sade. In 1962 he founded the dance studio Asbestos Hall with his partner Akiko Motofuji. At the end of the seventies he stopped performing in public and occupied himself with writing and editing books. He died shortly before the scheduled first performance after this hiatus.
2 – Yukio Mishima (14.1.1925 – 25.11.1970), Son of a Tokyo government official, one of the most influential Japanese authors of the 20th century, he published 34 novels, about 50 plays, some 25 books of short stories, at least 35 essays, a libretto, and a film. His work is characterized by the idea of restoring the values and ways of life of old Japan and is pervaded by homoerotic hero worship, an extremely refined, classical language, and some mythomania. In 1968, he formed a private army from right-wing students, with which he attacked a command of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (who cooperated with the Allies) in 1970. He gave a speech to his people, “handed over” the JSDF “to the emperor,” and then committed ritual suicide in the form traditionally practiced by the Samurai.
3 – “Ausdruckstanz” is a predominantly expressionist dance form originating in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, which, inspired by the back-to-nature movement of Monte Verità, attempted to counter ballet with expression through the natural movement of the body. Protagonists significant for Butoh include Mary Wigmann (1886 – 1973) and Harald Kreutzberg (1902 – 1968). Pina Bausch (1940 – 2003) also took up these origins with her “Tanztheater Wuppertal”.
4 – Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio. Well-known productions of the studio are, for example, Princess Mononoke, Chihiro’s Journey to Wonderland and The Walking Castle. In the films, mostly created by founder Hayao Miyazaki (*1941), usually a young heroine passes adventures, in the course of which the disturbed harmony between modern reality and an “other world ” populated by ghosts and mythical creatures is restored.
5 – Kazuo Ohno (17.10.1906 – 1.6.2010), Son of an educated fishermen’s family from Hokkaido, initially a track and field athlete at a sports college, he spontaneously began dance training in 1933 after witnessing a dance performance by Antonia Mercé (La Argentina). He performed in public for the first time at the age of 43 after war and captivity. Tatsumi Hijikata was in the audience, with whom he then worked from 1959 to 1966. He performed with him, other protagonists of modern dance and solo and began touring internationally in 1980. His last performance was in 2007 at the age of hundred: From a wheelchair and lying on his belly, he formed his movements with hands and legs, purest Butoh.
6 – Quoted from Die Rebellion des Körpers. BUTOH. Ein Tanz aus Japan. Michael Haertder, Sumie Kawai (Hrsg.) Alexander Verlag, Berlin, 1988, second edition. ISBN 3-923854-22-6, S. 38 below