The origins of Butoh

Butoh performance by Imre Thormann

Butoh was developed in Japan during the 1960's. Defeat in the second world war along with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had plunged Japan into turmoil as its old world traditional where came into contact with western democratic values brought along by the American conquerors. During this time there was much student unrest and protest, daily demonstrations took place on Japan’s streets whilst theatre groups were performing many socially challenging pieces.

Tatsumi Hijikata (1928 -1986), and his partner Kazuo Ohno (b. 1906) felt that the Japanese modern dance scene was merely copying the western scene. They wanted to find a form of expression that was purely Japanese, one that allowed the body to ‘speak’ for itself, through unconscious, improvised movement. His first experiments were called Ankoku Butoh, or the Dance of Darkness. This darkness referred was the turmoil he found inside himself living in a post nuclear conflict era.

Butoh loosely translated means stomp dance, or earth dance. Hijikata believed that by distorting the body, moving slowly on bent legs he could get away from the traditional idea of the beautiful body, and return to a more organic natural beauty. The beauty of an old woman bent against a sharp wind, or the beauty of a lone child splashing about in a mud puddle. Hijikata grew up in the harsh climate of Northern Japan where he had watched grown-ups working long hours in the rice fields, their bodies often bent and twisted from the ravages of the physical labour. These were the bodies that resonated with Hijikata, not the "perfect" upright bodies of western dance.

It is easy to see how this dance, done in a trance-like state, on bent legs with rolled up eyes was disconcerting to the conservative Japanese community. But the work was soon to sweep the imagination of many younger artists, and by the 1970's butoh began to gain world-wide attention and was performed internationally.

An aspect of butoh, that is especially resonant today is that every "body" is a perfect body. It is not concerned whether the performer has a perfect, lithe body of a trained dancer, but rather that (s)he finds organic expression through the body they

Find themselves in now. A prime example is the afore-mentioned Kazuo Ohno, who at 96 and still performed with a vibrant inner intensity.

Butoh is a hybrid art, incorporating elements of theatre, dance, mime, Noh, Kabuki and at times the Chinese arts of Chi kung and Tai chi. It is up to the individual artist to find their own dance but it should be a dance of discovery, rather than a calculated series of movements meant to manipulate the audience into a desired response.

Butoh Dance Performance in Japan
© Roger Walch

What is Butoh Part 1 of 6
© Steve Teers

What is Butoh Part 2 of 6
© Steve Teers

What is Butoh Part 3 of 6
© Steve Teers

What is Butoh Part 4 of 6
© Steve Teers

What is Butoh Part 5 of 6
© Steve Teers

What is Butoh Part 6 of 6
© Steve Teers


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Tatsumi Hijikata
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