Butoh is a mysterious, dark and difficult discipline, it is elusive and complex. Its borders are blurred, it emerged within the world of dance but it is very close to performance art and theater itself. Visually it seems identifiable due to the unique way their performers are used to make up their entire body in white, but that is not an imperative, a Butoh dancer can go naked and without makeup or masked and with huge and quirky costumes. It seems that most of his movements are slow and dense, but it is not an imperative either, the impulsiveness that they feed on leads to enormous variations in speed and quality of movement and energy. Butoh was created in the 1950s as part of the avant-garde movement around the world, it was initiated as a response to the enormous weight of tradition in Japanese performing arts and as a counterweight to the North American cultural invasion that caused the defeat of the second world war. Butoh emerged as part of a rebellious urban subculture in Tokyo, tackling scandalous issues. Today, 70 years later, the spectrum of their creative themes and goals has expanded in such a way that it has been dissolved inside the consumer society and inside neo-hippie, holistic and ritualistic movements; but a good part of its underground and anti-establishment vibe remains. It is no longer Japanese, it is created and re-created all over the world with the freedom contributed by different individuals from different cultures, and being anti-traditional, of course there is no tradition to follow.
When, at the end of 2020, Zhiren Xiao, a contemporary dance performer and director of his own experimental company in Guangzhou (ZET), asked me to work with his dancers – and himself – in a Butoh workshop and the creation of a Butoh show, I knew the difficulties I would face with that. The Butoh I perform belongs to the so-called “school of light” that was originated by Kazuo Ohno, co-creator of Butoh together with Tatsumi Hijikata (of the “school of darkness” in opposition to that of light). Even though these denominations are not academic, they speak a lot about their ways of approaching my view of Butoh. Kazuo Ohno developed as a dancer a deeply personal and inner style, impulsive, spiritual and with deep philosophical and religious sources, while Hijikata developed a more impersonal, physical and codified style linked to death, darkness, politics and rebellion. The “school of light” is rebellious in a much more philosophical sense, seeking the depth of the inner being of the dancer, avoiding the intrusion of the codified technique of any dance discipline. My personal vision of Butoh is deeply routed in my spiritual world, very individualistic, and almost against any dance technique by itself. How to approach then an introductory Butoh montage with a company linked to contemporary Chinese dance? That was my first big question.
“Digging” is the term I have come to, that symbolizes and brings together the experience that I have faced with these 7 dancers during these previous months: the creation of maps that little by little take us literally inside the body where we dig for the sources of our own creativity. That source that causes the flow of the unified movement, where mind and body are united since their origin. Exploring the territoriality of that body, finding points where it is decided to excavate and little by little going deeper and deeper within oneself were some of our explorations. Whoever is digging here does not do it to stay inside that hole that he or she has been created, they do it as a performers, in search of something -even if they don’t know what exactly is- and, no matter how small be the discovery, their desire is to bring it to light, exposing it, be it brute stones, sand, objects from the past, rough diamonds, memories or fuel sources that move our flesh and humanity. In the same way that we create a map to find the place of our excavation, in the same way we use that map to leave it and to return to the world. These maps of our excavation is our Butoh piece, it’s our way of dancing this time here in Guangzhou.
In this piece the performers share in their personal dances their experience during the workshops where I pushed them to face their own memories, their own ghosts and to find the way to expose it in free movement. That exploration inside their bodies, slowly has been creating a language in movement, a movement of the inner movement and, I insist, a very personal one. A story is told, yes, but not in ordinary ways, the starting and ending points are probably lost; there is no ending, no dramatic climax, no line of characters to follow. There is neither a symbology of the body or movement, nor an exhibition of performing skills. I know It will be difficult to observe if the spectator looks for something that he/she has seen before, if he/she forces himself to compare it with other works and have expectations of what a piece of dance should be. Let’s pretend that there are spectators who only want to understand everything and who will leave without understanding anything, but that there are also others who want to explore and are open to dig inside their bodies – like these dancers – from their own position as observers.
Let’s all together play the adventure and see what happens now on the stage.
* This text was written for the online information brochure of the premier show in July 2021 in Guangzhou, China. (Main photograph by Yang Yen © 2021)