Alison Grace. Photo: Joka Tobeij Dance UK explores... Butoh dance

Date Thu 20 February 2014


Each month, Dance UK is investigating a different dance style for our members' e-newsletter, finding out about its technique, style and history. For February, it’s butoh dance, which choreographer and butoh dancer Alison Grace discusses in an interview with Dance UK’s Communications and Membership Officer, Laura Dodge.

What is butoh dance and how did it originate?

Butoh began in Japan after the Second World War. It was created by two contemporary dancers at the time – Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. After their experiences of the destruction of war, they wanted to create a dance that expressed a raw experience of the body, revolting against stylised form. In the words of Hijikata, being a dancer meant to seek expression which was “a revolt of the flesh”, dancing against the pressures of the modern “domestication of the body”.

Both dancers drew upon their life experiences. Kazuo‘s memories of his relationship with his mother brought him close to the primal experiences of being in the womb and being born, as seen in his performance, My mother. In Jellyfish Dance, Kazuo remembers seeing dead soldiers dropped at sea during his trip back from being a prisoner of war in New Guinea. His most famous performance, Admiring La Argentina, was an ode to the famous Spanish dancer Antonia Merce, whose performance had touched him when he was only a young teenager.

The typical stance of a butoh dancer in performance is with knees bent, bringing the centre of the body closer to the ground. This is the posture and experience of people picking rice in Hijikata’s mountainous homeland in Tohoku, in the north of Japan. By wanting to free himself from social pressures inflicted on the mind and body, Hijikata believed that “Tohoku is everywhere” in the world.

A key idea within butoh dance is transformation – a dancer is embodying not only individual experiences but also drawing from collective experiences of the world. The dance comes from deep within. Dancers often wear white paint on their faces and bodies – this reduces the sense of them as an individual so they become a canvas for the collective experiences of life.

Each transformation demands extreme and complete embodiment of the image that is being worked with. The dancer does not consider what he/she looks like from the outside – the form is found through total immersion and melding with the image. The individual dancer disappears to free up a more primal, dark, and often grotesque expression of the body.  

Kazuo Ohno toured around the world as a dancer and became known in Europe and America. Butoh is now performed worldwide – a good example is Sankai Juku, a group that has performed at Sadler’s Wells in London: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdwL27NzIVg.

Another example is Marie-Gabrielle Rotie, who continues to mesmerise the public with her own take on butoh dance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThevW8Ne4X8.

How do you train as a butoh dancer?

The Butoh technique is improvised, based on words and images provided by a choreographer or teacher, often exploring contrasting ideas, such as beauty and the grotesque, death and life, or masculinity and femininity.

A lot of time needs to be invested in training. Generally, you learn through intensive workshops, with each session a minimum of two hours in length. There are body techniques first, which act like a warm up. These exercises relate mind and body and are often inspired by other Eastern movement forms such as yoga and tai chi.

Following this, you start to improvise with images that the teacher offers. The teacher will have personal reasons for choosing their images and will tell stories to inspire you. It’s important not to mime the images, but rather to respond physically without rational thought. The transformation takes a long time and can be a cathartic experience.

There’s no real form of correction in butoh. The only thing a teacher may say is something like ‘I don’t believe what you’re doing – it looks like you are thinking too much’. You mainly learn through discussion with the rest of the class after the improvisation. Everyone shares their different experiences of the body and expression.

What should you look out for when watching butoh dance?

It’s a lot about feeling. You know the dancing is good if it makes you feel something in your gut. The dancer should be projecting his or her presence to you so you feel the emotional tension of their transformation. Kazuo Ohno was famous for making audiences cry simply by walking on stage!

Why do you love butoh dance?

As a dance form it’s still very alternative, but it touches people and performers in many spheres. I love the idea of finding a dance that is unchaining the body from its social conditioning. Having taught contemporary dancers, adults with learning disabilities and mental health care service users, I can truly say that the butoh experience is accessible and cathartic for all who dare to ‘tread into the unknown’.

What dance style would you like to see featured next in the 'Dance UK explores...' series? Email suggestions to laura@danceuk.org.