Butoh (舞踏) is often described as a Japanese dance-theatre form, founded by Tatsumi Hijikata (土方 巽) and Kazuo Ohno (大野 一雄) as part of the Japanese Avant-garde movement – yet its resistance to definition has long fascinated scholars and dancers alike. Dr. Rosa van Hensbergen, Junior Research Fellow in English at Queens’ College Cambridge, studied English at Jesus College before leaving for Japan on a Harper-Wood creative writing and travel fellowship, and then on a Daiwa scholarship. She first heard of butoh during her third year of study at Cambridge, but only began to research the dance form whilst in Japan, participating in workshops and working in archives. She has worked on butoh dance notation, and features in a Keio University FutureLearn course, ‘Exploring Japanese Avant-garde Art Through Butoh Dance’. As I have been fascinated by Japanese theatre since living in Tokyo, I took this course and decided to contact Rosa van Hensbergen in order to gain insight into how butoh works.

So, what exactly is butoh? van Hensbergen suggested that one of the challenges in defining butoh is knowing what ‘butoh’ designates: is it an aesthetic, a method, a historical movement? ’There is a characteristic look in butoh dance – shaved heads, very little costume, white body makeup – but these elements aren’t ‘fixed’. van Hensbergen notes how ‘butoh’ can be ‘a term used by artists as a means of identifying themselves with one tradition and not another…. Yet there might be a potential tension between artists who have trained for many years but wouldn’t call themselves butoh dancers and those who might have taken some workshops and decided that they identify with this art form.’ So what can we consider an adequate ‘training’ or ‘background’ in butoh ? Who is allowed to use the name ‘butoh’ when speaking of their art?

“In butoh, a rich, imaginative world produces movement.”

As a Junior Research fellow, van Hensbergen has been particularly interested in the language butoh uses as notation: ‘[Butoh] presents the most unusual and dense use of language I’ve seen in dance… though the dancers very rarely speak on stage. What Hijikata developed was a language that he would speak live to a dancer in the rehearsal studio, which they would then respond to… Often, Hijikata gathered images from which he would develop a poetic language.’ She then gave the example of a story of someone lying with fungus growing on their back for many years, who sees a girl in the distance, and then the girl runs and jumps in this person’s eye. ‘There is a rich imaginative world that produces the movement.’

van Hensbergen is particularly interested in ‘the way [butoh] might tell you how language can be processed; Hijikata would speak very fast at his dancers, and they would train their bodies to be responsive to his speech… This might make us wonder how language can move a body at speed, in a way that is synchronous… Language does not only produce an image that you improvise to, but also structures the timing of the movement... This may suggest something about the way in which we process language…’ As butoh audiences do not have access to this notation, she also wonders ‘how legible the interior process [is] to someone watching ... Something is structured, but in an elusive way, where you can’t exactly pin down what is structuring it. It actually results in a structure that is incredibly resistant to interpretation.’

“Butoh dancers tap into experiences they might have had of the natural world.”

van Hensbergen also discussed whether or not butoh can be understood to be a method. It draws on ’automatic processes and collage techniques… The difficulty in labelling which performances are butoh and which aren’t was produced early on with the two founding figures, Ohno and Hijikata...Its split aesthetic and method, which resulted from divergences between its two founders, might be one reason why it is difficult to say ‘this is butoh’... There was no controlling impulse to contain and authorize what could be produced under its sign.’ As mentioned, ‘Ohno was interested in improvisation techniques... whilst Hijikata was more interested in butoh as a choreographic method and a performance philosophy. Ohno and Hijikata both had experience in dance forms such as ballet and contemporary dance, though from the 1970s, Hijikata increasingly worked with dancers who had no previous experience in dance.’ The dancers taught in Hijikata’s lineage learned butoh as a ‘repertoire of movements’, whereas ‘Ohno travelled around the world, and was more invested in improvisation technologies’. van Hensbergen explained how taking workshops with Ohno’s son, he would invite his dancers to improvise with the image of a flower, or a moon; Ohno’s butoh was more invested in ‘using your feeling to carry you… Hijikata was more concerned with being carried by the image, by the language, which produced the movement. This may have generated feelings, but it abstracted the emotion: form was what led to the production of feeling.’

A butoh dancer does choreography by Ima Tenko. Twitter/@Kyotobutohkan

Since butoh arose during the post-war period, I wondered if there were any links between the way in which butoh was influenced by the context of the atomic bomb, and the way this changed the artistic perception of the natural world. van Hensbergen began by answering: ‘There are myths which persist around butoh that it has some relation to the atomic bomb. It is very much a product of the post-war period… Japan was occupied by America, and so there was a very forceful importing of American culture… This, in tension with the history of nationalism that had led to Japan’s imperial expansion prior to the Second World War, created a complicated relationship to Japaneseness.’ I then asked what she made of Hijikata’s short film ‘Navel and A-Bomb’, which specifically references this historical event: ‘It is difficult to say, because of its aestheticizing… It uses montage techniques to bring together different filmic sequences, and doesn’t really do the interpretative work of narrativising… These surrealist techniques leave some joints unjoined and therefore refuse to commit to particular historical or political positions.’

“Butoh was very anti-establishment and counter-cultural.”

Because I was interested in butoh’s investment in nature, I asked what she thought of Tatsumi Hijikata’s relation to the natural world, since the dancer had grown up in the rural Akita prefecture. He often drew inspiration from Northern Japanese culture, as well as from Western influences, as we can see in his written work ‘Yameru Maihime’ or ‘Ailing Dancer’ – ‘[He] brings together memories of the community he grew up in, and its landscape – references which can also be seen in the notation’. van Hensbergen describes how she took part in one workshop where they ‘were invited to see fireflies everywhere, which is something you can see in the North of Japan at certain times of the year’; ‘dancers tap into experiences they might have had of the natural world.’

Butoh is global: these dancers are from Hawaii.Twitter/@IONAdance

In terms of butoh as a reaction to politics, she noted that butoh was very anti-establishment and counter-cultural. ‘Kinjiki’, considered the first butoh performance, takes its name from Yukio Mishima’s book ‘Forbidden Colours’ which tells the story of a hidden homosexual love. In his later work, ‘Revolt of the Body’ (‘Nikutai no hanran’), Hijikata drew on Artaud’s Heliogabalus who was known for cross-dressing… Hijikata spent a lot of time with people on the peripheries of society.’ This counter-cultural energy is at odds with the sense of tradition that is very much at the centre of Japanese culture. ‘An imagination of tradition, which is very present in Japan, and the question of whether it is legitimate to have, became very fraught in post-war Japan.’ On a lighter note, van Hensbergen also added that butoh artists are ‘potentially not so worried about where material came from, drawing on what naturally speaks to them. An irreverence for political implications might have been important to their ability to create.’

“Butoh is global... During this last lockdown I’ve taken part in Zoom events in Mexico, Tokyo and South Africa.”


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Finally, I asked whether butoh has stayed local to Japan, to which van Hensbergen answered: ‘Butoh is global... During this last lockdown I’ve taken part in Zoom events in Mexico, Tokyo and South Africa. The butoh community is definitely internationally connected.’

Butoh might be a complex art form, defying interpretation and definition, but it has travelled across the world, intriguing artists and researchers, and allowing thousands to identify with this fascinating dance-theatre discipline. As van Hensbergen beautifully put it, ‘in order for a form to live, you might have to refrain from containing it.’