In 2021, audiences are going to be treated to a year packed full of events connected to the style of Japanese dance theatre known as “Butoh”.
Akaji Maro is one of Japan’s most famous Butoh dancers and is also director of the butoh dance company Dairakudakan. The company performed Crazy Camel Garden at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum’s Lawn Space from May 21 to 23 as part of the Tokyo Festival’s special performance program called Fantastic Site. Another part of the Fantastic Site program is Undercurrents, a series of film and performance pieces showcasing three artistic groups influenced by the spirit of Butoh in different ways, and plans are to have it available for viewing online until the end of March 2022.
Tokyo Real Underground is a program being offered by Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL Special 13, and it is comprised of a number of primarily online shows available until August 15, all of which shine a spotlight on Butoh and other former underground cultural movements in Japan.
Here we take a look at a few shows that will introduce viewers to the appeal of Butoh, a form of physical expression that began life in Japan in the 1960s before spreading around the world.
Butoh is a form of dance founded and developed in the 1960s by choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986), Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010), and other Japanese dancers.
Both Hijikata and Ohno studied modern dance, a style that had arisen as a sort of antithesis to ballet and other forms of Western aesthetic, which emphasize rules, harmony, and stability for artists, dances in which they lift and expand their physical forms in an external way. In contrast, Butoh aims to present physicality in a pre-modern, more indigenous way, through forms that are more distorted, inward-facing, and with a lower center of gravity. Through that, it creates worlds with a radical, almost vulgar and chaotic appeal. Hijikata once expressed the spirit of butoh in simple terms, announcing that, “Butoh is a corpse standing straight up in a desperate bid for life.”
People often think of shaved heads and white body paint when they think of Butoh. While not all Butoh dance incorporates such elements, they can be said to be representative of the Butoh worldview, in which all mundane and societal individuality is erased, leaving behind an expression of the fundamental form of humanity. Butoh developed as a form of avant-garde expression through interactions with writers and poets such as Yukio Mishima and Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, and through underground theatre.
Butoh took its first steps into the wider world in the 1980s. Kazuo Ohno, Akira Kasai, performing group Sankai Juku, and Min Tanaka were invited to the 14th World Theatre Festival, Nancy in 1980, and Ohno’s solo performance of the Hijikata-directed Admiring La Argentina was received to great acclaim. Dairakudakan also spread the word of Butoh when they took part in the Avignon Festival and in the American Dance Festival in 1982. Ever since that year, Sankai Juku has collaborated with the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris to perform all of its pieces at that famous venue. Butoh has spread worldwide, and other Butoh dancers and companies have achieved success throughout Europe and Asia.
Japan has changed greatly since the time of the shoguns in the 19th century. After the restoration of the emperor to his throne in the 1860s, the country quickly began adopting western customs and modernizing. Our first program, Fantastic Site, provides a forum for audiences to gain a more visceral understanding of the comings and goings of different eras in Japan. It is an attempt to breathe new life into the sights and sentiments of Japan’s past through Butoh and other performances by artists who hold within them the essence, the very soul of Butoh.
The program includes a Dairakudakan performance of its Temputenshiki work titled Crazy Camel Garden, which was directed by Satoshi Miyagi, General Director of Tokyo Festival. Also viewable will be the film and performance series Undercurrents, co-directed by Kaku Nagashima and Chika Kawai, both of whom are members of the Tokyo Festival planning team and directors with Festival / Tokyo.
●Dairakudakan Temputenshiki Crazy Camel Garden
Dates: Friday 21 May – Sunday 23 May, 2021
Venue: Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, Lawn Space
Let’s begin with the public performance of Crazy Camel Garden in the Lawn Space at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.
Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was first built as a residence for a prince of the imperial family. French artist Henri Rapin was commissioned to design the main rooms, and the residence was a true blend of Japanese and western designs, with ancient Japanese artisanship combined with art deco style. This was the stage for the Dairakudakan performance of the Temputenshiki piece Crazy Camel Garden. This was a special performance of the show for Fantastic Site, based on a 2012 Dairakudakan performance in Paris.
Akaji Maro founded Dairakudakan in 1972, and in a sense, is a living witness to the history of Butoh, having studied under Tatsumi Hijikata and having worked with the theatre group Jokyo Gekijo, or Situation Theatre, run by Juro Kara. In Butoh’s early days, Butoh actors often made a living by appearing at cabaret clubs and other venues in what were called “gold powder shows,” where the performers would dance while covered in gold powder. Dairakudakan still honors that history with street performances of gold powder shows today, and 14 Butoh dancers have their bodies completely covered in gold paint in Crazy Camel Garden, the title of which is a nod to the famous Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse and to the rakuda or “camel” in the group’s name.
In one scene, a golden figure appears just as the sun sets and night falls, and the dancer seems to shimmer with sensual, divine light, like the Buddhist sculptures found at the Sanjusangen-do, a temple in Kyoto. Then, two schoolgirls (played by Akaji Maro and Naomi Muku) appear wearing sailor outfits and with ribbons in their hair. The two seem friendly as they interact, but when a schoolboy (played by Takuya Muramatsu) appears, carrying a book of Monet’s work, the two are both lovestruck, and they begin to compete for his affections. The schoolboy is swayed by neither, and as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons plays in the background, we see the boy move through the seasons of his own life, transforming from schoolboy to old man. The schoolgirls also become women.
When we look back on our own lives, that road from sexual awakening to old age seems like nothing more than a dream. This is a journey that all people take, and perhaps it can be said that Japan itself has taken a similar path. From the late 19th century, when the country opened itself up again to the world and underwent explosive development, to the modern day, in which Japan has matured, or dare we say it, has entered a period of decline.
Perhaps the same can be said of Butoh as well; arising as an avant-garde movement among a youthful generation, it has since grown to become a global phenomenon of artistic expression.
Modern and pre-modern, Japan and the West, past and present, Crazy Camel Garden is an intersection of various ideas, and on the stage, the curtain falls on the deepening darkness, leaving behind a black luster, a light different than that we saw when the show began.
●Undercurrents – Films and Performances
Dates: January 2021 to March 2022
Undercurrents are those flows of water that cannot be seen from the surface. The spirit of Butoh has been handed down from artist to artist, evolving over time, changing completely with every glance, in the same way that Edo evolved from a city of canals to the metropolis we now know as Tokyo.
Undercurrents is yet another part of the Fantastic Site program,and it offers video works by such artists as Teita Iwabuchi, Ikuyo Kuroda, and the performance group Kakuya Ohashi and Dancers. The idea behind this project was to give dancers a way to physically connect with Tokyo, a city that has been constantly changing under the cloud of the pandemic that began in 2020.
A Water Vein, Teita Iwabuchi, 2021.
Runtime: 22 minutes
Teita Iwabuchi studied Butoh and other forms of Japanese dance, and performed in the Butoh works of the late Ko Murobushi from 2007 until just before Murobushi’s death in 2015.
In his film A Water Vein, Iwabuchi seeks out the unknown waterways that flow or once flowed under the city of Tokyo. He wanders, rolls, and dances through the nighttime streets of the city, sometimes calling out, confirming his discoveries using his own physical form. Iwabuchi puts on a memorable performance in this piece he says was inspired by a photo collection called Kamaitachi by Eikoh Hosoe, which included a photo of Tatsumi Hijikata posing in a farm village Akita.
Yameru Maihime, Ikuyo Kuroda, 2021.
Runtime: 22 minutes
Ikuyo Kuroda has performed with Ko Murobushi and in shows by Akira Kasai, and in 2018, her self-created, self-performed solo work was included in that year’s production of Dansu ga mitai! 20: Performing Yameru Maihime, which was based on Tatsumi Hijikata’s piece, Yameru Maihime, also known as La danseuse malade (The Ailing Dance Mistress).
The piece highlighted here comes from a performance based on Yameru Maihime, at a 150-year-old traditional Japanese home that spent the last part of its life as a studio before being knocked down in March of this year. The performance gives viewers a sense of a mysterious and surreal time and space as Kuroda moves through the home, gently touching it and the items within, as if confirming their existence.
Tune to a Dead Channel: Departure/Arrival, Kakuya Ohashi and Dancers, 2021.
Runtime: Arrival – 86 minutes; Departure – 26 minutes
Kakuya Ohashi danced in performances by late Butoh dancer Yukio Waguri titled Yukio Waguri + Kozensha, and set off on his own creative path in 1995. Waguri was known for his development of Butoh-fu or “Butoh notation,” and as his student, Ohashi feels that the process of making “memories” through Butoh notation and of creating dance pieces can be likened to the world of the replicants in the film Blade Runner.
The first piece, Arrival, was live-streamed from an iron factory in northern Hachioji, one of the leading industrial areas of Tokyo, sharing the space with the machinery that is still in use. The second piece, titled Departure, was filmed in Hachioji’s downtown, an area that once flourished as a post town on one of the highways that led from Edo to western Japan.
Dates: Thursday 1 April – Sunday 15 August, 2021
Venues: Online and locations throughout Tokyo
Our second program is titled Tokyo Real Underground (TRU) and comes to us from Tokyo Tokyo Festival Special 13, a festival of complex dance planned and produced by the non-profit organization Dance Archive Network. It focuses on Tokyo’s underground and on former underground cultural movements like Butoh, and will run for around five months from April to August 2021, through TRU Online, which hosts online performances, and TRU Exhibition, which hosts shows at various venues.
●A selection of TRU Online works
About Kazuo Ohno, Takao Kawaguchi.
Available online from Sunday 27 June at 19:30 to 15 August.
This work was first performed in 2013 as a part of Dansu ga mitai! 15. It is comprised of an astoundingly accurate recreation – or perhaps reinterpretation – of videos of traditional Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno’s pieces Admiring La Argentina, My Mother, and The Dead Sea, and Ohno’s film A Portrait of Mr. O. Kawaguchi has little physical resemblance to Ohno, but something compelling occurs at those instants when their choreographed movements and their physical forms overlap. Expectations for this piece are high as it will also include performance elements only possible through the medium of film.
A Body in Places, a solo project from Eiko Otake
A Body in Tokyo + A Body in Fukushima, Eiko Otake.
Available online until 15 August
Eiko Otake earned worldwide fame from her base in New York as a part of the performing duo Eiko & Koma, after having met her partner, Koma, while studying under Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Through her solo project A Body in Places, she places herself outside traditional theatre spaces to explore the potential of physical expression by engaging in dialogue with the locations in which she dances.
Here we have two pieces. The first is A Body in Tokyo, and for this work Otake visited Ueno, the gateway for trains to Fukushima, and various other spots around Tokyo. She visited in March 2021, the tenth anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, and for this piece she danced before projected images of the Fukushima. The second work is titled A Body in Fukushima, and for this video, Otake selected photographs from more than 25,000 images taken on periodic visits to Fukushima with photographer William Johnston between 2014 and 2019. From Otake’s body, voice, and narrative, we are given a glimpse into our present day.
Three, Naoto Iina, Takao Kawaguchi, Mikiko Kawamura, and Dai Matsuoka.
Available online until 15 August
This work is a complete copy of masterpieces by Butoh dancers Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, and Yoshito Ohno, three figures closely connected to the birth of the art of Butoh itself. Modern-day dancers Mikiko Kawamura, Takao Kawaguchi, and Dai Matsuoka are absolutely integral to any discussion about Butoh and contemporary dance, but each has a complex relationship with the art, coming from different generations and different experiences.
Three comes from the mind of film director and producer Naoto Iina, who focused on the relationships between Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, and Yoshito Ohno. The three contemporary dancers provide us with exact recreations of those famous works, with Kawamura performing Tatsumi Hijikata’s Hosotan (Story of Smallpox), Kawaguchi performing Kazuo Ohno’s Admiring La Argentina, and Matsuoka performing Yoshito Ohno’s Hijikata Sansho (Three Chapters of Hijikata). Each work is different so the dancers do not perform together, but the unique possibilities of film transform each individual, combining them into a single entity of three.
These productions give audiences a deeper understanding of Butoh through the novel combination of both online and real-life performances – a necessity born out of our current situation with the coronavirus. Take the opportunity to discover the allure of Butoh, a performing art known worldwide, a performing art that the people of Japan are proud to call their own.
Original text by Ayako Takahashi
Translation by James Watt