Dance in a Surreal Realm

Text and photos by ERIC PRIDEAUX

We are between sanity and insanity, beauty and ugliness. Good and evil don't matter; emotion lurches from serenity to rage without warning. East and West, too, have merged: Leering Japanese ghosts waltz to Edith Piaf; a forest hag dressed for a Versailles ball strikes wild kabuki poses. Fear turns frolicksome at a soiree deep inside a nuclear-fallout shelter.

We are in the universe of butoh, the theatrical, ghoulish genre of dance that has, in its four decades of existence, become Japan's biggest contribution to the world of contemporary dance.

Butoh, a word comprising the Chinese characters for "dance" and "step," is a strikingly visual artform in which the butoh-ka (dancers) are often a mere loincloth away from total nudity, their whole bodies smeared in macabre white body paint. Exaggerated facial expressions are as important as movement in getting the point across: Does that off-kilter smile signify innocence, depravity -- or something beyond the bounds of language? Butoh has raised such imponderables since it arose from the rubble of postwar Japan, in the process pushing the envelope of dance.

It is impossible, in finite terms, to define the parameters of butoh. Nonetheless, what can be said is that sometimes a routine is improvised, sometimes it is choreographed; either way, dancers usually do not move to rhythm as in African dance or salsa. Neither are there any of the high kicks or pirouettes of ballet. Instead, dancers crouch and writhe while, like poets, they lead us to a conceptual realm where our imagination takes over.

As the specters of militarism, thought police and World War II slowly began to fade, the 1950s in Japan became a turbocharged decade of creativity. When dance pioneers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno hooked up with the likes of novelist Yukio Mishima and photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the result was a frenetic burst of experimental artistic collaboration.

Butoh was an explosion just waiting to happen. And happen it surely did, in such works as 1959's scandalous "Kinjiki [Forbidden Colors]," a butoh dance inspired by a Mishima book, in which Hijikata and an adolescent boy embraced passionately.

"We were young people forced into silence for so long, and then suddenly liberated," remembers veteran butoh dancer Akiko Motofuji, 74, who was married to Hijikata until his death from cancer in 1986 at age 57. "All that pent-up energy became the fuel of butoh."

At its best, when performers and audience really synch, butoh becomes an eruption of pure emotion. Despite this, it has, too, a reputation for gloomy self-centeredness -- and not without reason. Tokyo resident Sumiko Ozaki, for instance, recalls one recent, painfully self-indulgent solo performance she saw, in which a near-naked dancer squirmed and wriggled around a stage littered with raw eggs, crushing them messily with different parts of her body for what seemed an eternity. There was no drama, no theme . . . and no apparent point to the exercise. Says Ozaki: "I just couldn't understand what she wanted to express."

It's the kind of feedback that butoh dancers -- at least those who try to make a living of it -- would rather not get. They are, after all, entertainers, if of an unconventional ilk. For them, the challenge of butoh, today as before, is to make the dance accessible -- yet somehow imbue it with the surrealism of a dream.

Butoh director and performer Akaji Maro, 63, strikes that balance. Maro, who wears a handlebar moustache and shaves his head as clean as a Buddhist monk's whistle, has seen just about every kind of audience reaction since founding his company, Dairakudakan (Great Camel Battleship) more than 30 years ago. In the early 1970s, uniformed police who were sent to monitor his performances for signs of political subversion would scratch their heads in bafflement. Today, Western spectators are sometimes moved to tears. In Tokyo, where his troupe has a devoted following of some 10,000 fans, the mood tends toward silent awe.

But whatever else, at a Maro performance there's no yawning; he packs too much power into his dance for that. Take, for example, his 1998 work "RyuBa" a viscerally and intellectualy stimulating piece in which -- at one point in its mesmerizing 1 3/4 hour progress -- a clutch of demon women emerge with mask-like grins so nightmarish that even if you wanted to look away, you just couldn't. They are carried away by sinewy men who, still embracing their captives, clash mid-stage in an orgiastic bout of sumo. The women then regroup like lizards on a desert rock and flick their tongues at the audience.

What it all means is anybody's guess -- and, certainly, that is by design. Slipping past the threshold of reason, the spectacle reaches deep into the audience, touching a part of the spirit that is primal. Movements are repeated over and over until they form a pattern within which mood mystically changes. "Work that possesses no form, that is just a big jumble," says Maro, "is simply not interesting."

Maro first entered the world of butoh in 1965 and, for three years, became a disciple of Tatsumi Hijikata. Hijikata had studied classical, modern and jazz dance, as well as Neue Tanz, an expressionist method of dance introduced from Germany in the 1920s. However, while Hijikata had been drawn to the Western emphasis on improvisation, he yearned to break away from imported forms. "Hijikata wanted to create a dance for the Japanese person, something not a copy of Europe. Something conveying the pride and history of Japan," explains his widow, Motofuji.

That meant doing away with the sentimental lyricism that still characterized much Western dance -- all that hand-wringing and those arms extended plaintively toward the heavens and suchlike. Hijikata decided his dance should instead reflect the unromantically Spartan life of his native village in Akita Prefecture, located in Japan's austere, sun-starved northern Tohoku region, where each day centers on wresting a living from the soil. The result was Ankoku butoh, ankoku meaning "darkness." (Nowadays, ankoku is often left off.)

Dark it was. In one early piece, Hijikata moved Quasimodo-like across the stage, knees bent, back curled as if bearing some crushing weight, arms clinging to his torso, his twig-like fingers taut in an arthritic tangle. Offstage, Hijikata was muscular, but no preening Adonis; onstage he could become a wizened Tohoku farmer knee-deep in mud, planting rice.

If Hijikata situated his dance in the punishing climate of Tohoku, his colleague Kazuo Ohno, now 96, favored a warmer place. A slight man with a gentle mien, Ohno met Hijikata in 1954, and the two worked closely thereafter, with Hijikata choreographing for his older partner.

But their approach differed. Where Hijikata's dance was confrontational, Ohno's was tender, even motherly. "The question of how life flows from the mother is central to understanding the art of Kazuo Ohno," said Ohno's son, Yoshito, himself a renowned butoh-ka. His father now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and very rarely performs.

Over the decades, Kazuo Ohno studied the theme of motherhood with an almost shamanistic intensity. He communed with the spirit of his own deceased mother, who visited him during a dream in the form of a hairy caterpillar. (He recognized her by the eyes.) He stepped out of himself, and for a time, out of society -- even living with a sow in her sty and drinking her milk.

That kind of artistic dedication may seem a little beyond the call of duty, but for Kazuo Ohno it made perfect sense. Yoshito, who shares his father's aura of mystical calm, explains the notion over tea on a recent afternoon at the family's dance studio in Yokohama.

"Butoh is a different world," he says. "If you've had [my father's kind of] experience, the audience is bathed in a feeling it can't describe and people start crying."

Soon, two attendants gingerly lead the old father into the room. His tiny eyes peer into infinity. He no longer speaks much, and when he does, his words are mostly unintelligible. But when Yoshito turns on an ancient recording of a tango, the father lifts his veiny, wrinkled hand to his face, and begins to "dance" -- with his fingers. Slowly, slowly, as if caressing an imaginary rose.

Butoh's successes are many. Well-known troupes command followings from San Francisco to Paris, and butoh-ka have performed at some of the world's greatest venues -- including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Avignon Festival in the South of France.

On the other hand, with Hijikata departed and Kazuo Ohno off the stage, butoh is at a crossroads. Interest at home appears to have peaked sometime in the '90s, and though a lot has been written about butoh in Japan, there is still no definitive scholarly survey. That there is one in French riles butoh aficionados here.

Perhaps most troubling is that Asbestos Studio in Tokyo's Meguro Ward, where Hijikata and Motofuji performed -- and where Motofuji has lived for decades -- will close later this month.

Of course, with all the international recognition heaped on the Ohno family, Maro and other leading figures, nobody is predicting the death of butoh anytime soon. Asbestos' demise has more to do with the state of the Japanese economy than any specific lack of support from fans. Motofuji lost the building after her bank went bankrupt and she was told by the new owners to repay a hefty loan in one shot. No wealthy patrons came to the rescue, so Motofuji will have to vacate the premises within weeks.

For the time being, more than a dozen students have been showing up to practice butoh most days of the week. Motofuji instructs them in a husky voice over a Yo-Yo Ma solo on a CD. "Don't use technique! Let what's in your body come out!" she urges. "This is madness. This is anger. This is sadness. Don't think about what you're doing! Thinking won't do you any good!"

Later, in a quiet moment in her office upstairs, Motofuji discreetly wipes away a tear as her thoughts turn once again to the closure. "I'm not sad," she insists, stoically -- "because I've got dance." She hauls on her cigarette. "I have a consciousness and an unconsciousness, and I dance between the two."

This story originally ran in The Japan Times.

The Japan Times: June 8, 2003
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