"WHAT    THE     HELL!?!?"
-- Terrance Graven

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What Is Butoh?
by Terrance Graven & Indra Lowenstein

"A polymorphic body in a mysterious ceremony."

Ankoku Butoh, literally "darkness dance", was pioneered by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and Kazuo Ohno (born in 1906) in the late 1950's. In response to modern European dance traditions a group of heretical Japanese dancers began to incorporate traditional movement of the Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku into a new guerrilla art form.

Ice Butoh continued to evolve in the 1960's as a backlash to the extreme codification of traditional movement in Japan and the forced westernization after World War II. It attempted to reestablish ancient bonds of Japanese culture in order to escape oppressive Americanization.

Hijikata, a native of the cold rural Tohoku area in northern Japan, strongly influenced the Butoh aesthetic. Incorporating into his choreography the movements of working class life, he distanced himself from the common European dance expressions, that of attempting to spring from the earth and appear weightless. Having grown up in a farming community, he drew on personal life experiences, with a seemingly unsentimental realness and presence. Recognizing the value of cultural memory and traditional history, his dance was imprinted with images such as old women with bodies deformed by hard labor, ghost stories, mythology, sexual perversion, and nightmares.

On May 4th 1959, arguably the very first Butoh performance, Hijikata used a live chicken in a rebellious piece called "kinjiki" or "forbidden colors", an adaption of Yukio Mishima's novel of the same name. This performance scandalized the audience when it premiered during a series of group performances showcasing choreographers for the Japanese Dance Association. In the performance a young man, Yoshito Ohno, has sex with a hen after which another man, Hijikata tries to have sexual relations with him. The chicken's neck was broken during the performance. There was no music. The "forbidden color" in Mishima's book refers to colors reserved for Japanese royalty which the general public were forbidden to wear. Several members of the Dance association threatened to resign after this violent and irreverent performance.

Hijikata died of cancer at the age of 57 in January of 1986. Ohno is currently an active artist residing in Japan.


Anubis For its founders, the dance was an intense way of existing rather than an organization of space: one takes two steps to the left, one to the right. The performances were more happenings and spectacle than what most people conceive as dance performance. People, many of which were artists, writers, and musicians, went to these performances to be shocked, astounded, entertained, and shaken to the core of their soul. The dancers themselves were more interested in surviving as artists than becoming modern dancers. Expression being more valued than technique, they were aspiring to the perfect execution of a staid dance form, they expressed their souls to reveal the banality of human life in its ugliness, depravity and beauty. Heretically ritualistic subjects such as mastubation, divine transvestitism, golden phallus worship, courtly vanity were used in butoh choreography. Nothing is sacred.

Like religion, the definition and form of Butoh is in constant flux. Some say that the fundamental structure lies in the contradiction between the keen impulse toward self-destruction and the simultaneous impulse to resist dissolution. It becomes a catalyst for the deconstruction of all values, including the deconstruction of the self. Thus does Butoh defy definition as an inherent structure at its core.

A Select Bibliography and Source List:
  • "Butoh: Shades of Darkness" by Jean Viala & Norit Masson-Sekine
    Published by Shufunotomo Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan 1988
  • "Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul" by Ethan Hoffman
    Published by Aperture Foundation, Inc., New York, NY USA 1987
  • "Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement" by Gerald Jonas
    Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers 1992
  • "History of many dance traditions" (butoh is mentioned on two pages.)
  • "Butoh: Piercing the Mask" a Documentary Film
  • "Butoh: Dance of Darkness" a Documentary Film
  • San Francisco Butoh Festival Symposium Lectures 1995-1997

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