Butoh: Dancing to Death

Posted by Steven Bruhm on October 29, 2009 in Guest Blog, Prof Steven Bruhm tagged with

While I was trained in literary studies and have spent most of my energies in the Gothic thinking about popular culture, I’ve been drawn recently to dance and to the ways in which dance so often embodies a "gothic" aesthetic. In particular, I have been fascinated by Butoh, the Japanese *Dance of Utter Darkness.*

First, a very little bit of background. Butoh was invented as a dance form by Japanese artists Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno as a post-modernist response to more conventional Japanese stage dance (Noh and Kabuki) as well as European modes of balletic grace and beauty. (In this sense, Butoh is part of European modernism’s attempt to re-write dance convention, to get to a more legitimately "human" expression as opposed to the falsifications of ballet.) Moreover, the first Butoh performance was performed on the day that Japan signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, 24 May 1959, prompting Japanese artists to rise in protest against what they saw as a selling out to the country that had bombed them a decade and a half earlier. In this sense, Butoh deploys modernity against modernity, forging a new kind of dance to resist both Japanese tradition and contemporary politics.

In terms of its founding principles, Butoh aligns itself very closely to what we think of as a western gothic aesthetic. According to Hijikata, in Butoh, "We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body; this is the unlimited power of Butoh. . . . Something is hiding in our subconscious, collected in our unconscious body, which will appear in each detail of our expression. Here, we can find Butoh in the same way we can touch our hidden reality. Something can be born, can appear, living and dying in a moment." (quoted in Ethan Hoffman, *Butoh: The Dance of the Dark Soul,* 121) Living, as well as dying—for in Butoh, physical death actively engenders choreographic life, not just in the communication with the afterlife but in the actual sinews of the dancer. As Hijikata has elsewhere put it, “Butoh is a corpse standing straight up in a desperate bid for life” (quoted in Jay Hirabayashi, Vancouver International Dance Festival 200 catalogue, 14).

So, what exactly does this dance look like? I’m posting below a few links to YouTube, where you can watch various pieces of Butoh choreography. As I’m sure you know, YouTube also gives you a list of related links so that you can watch Butoh until the dead come home. I’m fascinated to hear what kind of impressions people have and how you might want us to think about this very staid, controlled, and choreographed form as an expression of *gothic* physicality. In a more general sense, I’m interested to read how you want to *talk* about an art form that seems to exceed words.

Butoh on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8V-KMDWe_Q&feature=rec-HM-fresh+div

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxT-v9cxf7g&feature=related

Blog now, blog often.

Steven Bruhm

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