Butoh improvisation at Sinheungsa Temple (South Korea)

In october 2018 I stayed at the Buddhist temple of Sinheungsa inside Seoraksan National Park in the northeast of South Korea. The impotence coming from my censored performance of Languid Bodies in Guangzhou had been too much for me. I needed fresh air, nature, freedom, calm and meditation, and Sinheungsa gave me all of that.

At dawn that day we went for a meditation and chants session (as the Buddhist monk do every day); after that I decided to offer my Butoh moving with the flow of that day.

Here you have the video of that improvised performance.


A shamanic ritual in Northern Mongolia

We could say that Shamanism in Mongolia has almost disappeared as it has happened in many other parts of the world these days, but some parts in the north of the country are trying to keep alive this religious tradition, and they are doing it mainly because it is a popular believe among Mongolian people that shamanism actually works, and also because it is a good source of revenue from tourism national and international. 

The frozen Khovsgol Lake in northern Mongolia (Gustavo Thomas © 2019)

Knowing that the Ice festival in Khovsgol was holding a shamanistic ritual the night of its first day, I was looking forward to be there and watch it. Of course I was aware that this was not a purist exhibition of tribal ancient shamanism. What I was interested in was experiencing an event like this as it is performed nowadays, I was thinking in a mix of spectacle and healing ritual.

During the day visiting the festival I had a short visual introduction when I saw some folk sculptures depicting shamans in trance.

The Ice festival is hold on a large area of the frozen lake Khovsgol so it is the shamanic ritual. Cars and buses park on the frozen lake too, and from the parking place we had to walk on the ice in the dark among crowds of people, food and beverages stands, electronic music bars and whatever was happening in a popular festival at night. Once we got to the event place everything was even more chaotic: hundreds of people around the ritual space delimited by a fence, at the middle a kind of Native American teepee (I apologize for my ignorant comparison), but only made of long and dry tree branches with attached colourful ribbons, and around that kind of tent I counted other four smaller dry bushes all prepared to be burned; people walking from one part to the other inside the fence area preparing something that I couldn’t know exactly what; also there journalists, photographers and even a TV crew with their lights and mics making interviews. 

Trying to find a good place where to watch I kept myself going from one place to another during the whole event, staying at the best a few minutes at one spot before being literally pushed away by other spectators. 

There was a voice of a man all the time speaking with a microphone (later that night the guide told us that this man was giving information about what was happening, only in Mongolian, but from his point of view it was an excess of information), like narrating a sport event in real time. 

After a few minutes in that chaos I could differentiate the image of the shaman, a woman. She was walking all around the place looking to the floor and to the sky; she started to spit some liquid from her mouth and then with a bottle flicking the liquid to the audience who reacted at unison, all shouting the same words and trying to reach the flicked water with their hands. Not much after that the shaman was moving quicker, jumping; also being hold by other people she was fainting. From afar I could observe her face, she was in a trance, with her eyes closed and making rhythmics noises with her voice. Jumping again -always in a very rhythmic way- her dress, made of pieces of clothes and animals, gave me the impression of an expanded body, like feathers, like growing wings. Then some of the men around made her to wear a mask and a kind of hat (or tocado) made with two long feathers, looking from afar it looked possibly like a rabbit, but I’m sure it was more like trying to be some kind of bird, probably an eagle. The last addition was a hand drum, a large circular hand drum, which she started to play rhythmically while singing. A sound that even with the noisy crowd surrounding us we all could listening to very clear. The small bushes were already on fire.

The now transformed shaman started to dance or moving rhythmically all around the place touching some people, hitting some others with the drum and with the stick, sometimes falling to the floor and going again to jump rhythmically. Someone lighted the main bush and a great fire took the main stage. Probably it was the night, the wind or the movements around, but that great fire got to my eyes the shape of some human and animal forms: the animistic world was there and think we all there were living in it as well. 

I guess watching the next images you will agree with me about those shapes of the big fire that night.

My hands were almost frozen and even with my boots -made especially for very low temperatures- I was feeling my feet very cold. The Mongolian men and women usually bigger and taller than in other regions of the world could easily push me back, and in one moment I was totally out of any good visual point. I had seen enough for that night. I had spent two hours there and it was impossible to watch more in the middle of that chaos and extreme cold. 

The guide was looking for me and took me with the other people from the group to a ger to feel warm, drinking a hot beverage and resting a little before going back to the camp. 

My thoughts all that night were in that impressive experience. It had been visually powerful, yes, rich in sounds, my mind was twisted from the conscious to the unconscious world. It had been a theatrical spectacle, a real live performance, a touristic event, but, I cannot exaggerate this, also a powerful ritual with a main shaman-performer who transformed herself -and the space around her- exactly in front of me.

I noticed that I was a spectator, but also a participant with all the other locals and tourists. Also, in my ignorance of the reasons for this event, I was participating in a ritual and in a spectacle. 

I had the references of a bunch of documentaries, books about shamanism (you know, Eliade and company), teachers talks about the origins of the theatrical performer, and my own experience with some kind of sessions with healers in Mexico, but I had never experienced anything like this in such a remote place of the world: a mix between theatre, ritual and an anthropological happening. 

Yes, my personal research about the sources of Butoh and the performer itself has brought me to many impressive parts of the world, and this is one is a memorable one.

(Hvoglod Lake, Northern Mongolia. Saturday March 2nd, 2019)


Days after that experience went to the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and I could see some dolls with costumes similar to that of the shaman in lake Khovsgol. Here the photographs.

(All photographs by Gustavo Thomas © 2019)

Nantokashite (Mutsumi and Neiro’s Butoh Workshop in Hirai)

Since I met Mutsumi and Neiro at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio six years ago, in 2013, I’ve been following their professional career through social networks. I saw their first works together, how they independized from Yoshito Ohno, their tours outside Japan, and how they stablished their own studio. I’ve been interested because when we met in 2013 they showed to me a very different approach to Butoh than others colleagues at the studio, a kind of compromise beyond the enjoyment of free dance.

So, when I was planning this current study trip to Japan I wanted to meet them again, watch them performing and visit their studio, and so far I’ve done everything. 

Going to Hirai is relatively easy but far from where I am staying, it is in the other extreme of Tokyo, between a big open river and an industrial zone. They live close to their studio (like Kazuo before and Yoshito Ohno now). Their studio is a tiny but lovely and cozy place, an adapted storage house, full of what I call “perceptible Butoh energy”: the floor, the windows, the books, the photos of the masters, costumes, things.

I was lucky to be the only student; they were not going to give a workshop this week because of personal problems, but I told them that I was leaving Japan soon and they kindly offered me to do the workshop only for me.

We did three exercises and one improvisation:

-Standing still, feeling the space.

-Walking with a simple movement of arms while feeling the edges of our skin.

-Walking with a glass full of water.

-A 20-minute free improvisation.

Depicted like this it seems very simple and, if you are familiar with Yoshito Ohno’s workshops, all the exercises recall you what many have worked at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio.

What made them different and, in some way, special for me this time, was something I also felt when I saw their performance two weeks ago: congruency and deep exploration. Each exercise at Mutsumi and Neiro workshop has to be explored in a very deep and compromised way, like their own work on stage. Slowliness here is not a technical exigence, but a result of the compromise they ask you to have while doing the exploration. It is not just doing it, but putting everything you have and being completely in it. The total exigence in Kazuo Ohno’s work.  Neiro even mentioned a Japanese word for this, nantokashite.

I didn’t expect that their workshop was going to be the hardest I would experience during this trip in Japan -and I’ve taken many, believe me- but it was. I think we found the reason during our talk while dining (delicious Mutsumis’s cooking) after: nantokashite. I was expecting the relaxed way Yoshito Ohno works his workshops, just making the proposition and let it go on free dancing without judgment or with minimal observations. Instead Mutsumi and Neiro work with Yoshito’s wisdom and with Kazuo’s exigence; they put me in line within my own compromise with Butoh, with my own body, and my own work with just some direct sentences. I have to admit it, that was hard. 

Simple, deep, serious like their own performance. 

Yes, the homemade dinner Mutsumi cooked after was delicious, the talk a little bit more and the dessert was saying good bye with a memorable selfie. 

Walking to the train station over the enormous river I saw the moon, the same moon we used to dance every session at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio with Yoshito Ohno. Now the moon and its reflection is also in Hirai, I’m probably carrying a little bit of it on me.

(Saturday February 23rd, 2019)

Light, darkness and the inner light


My last session at Yuri & Seisaku’s Butoh workshop couldn’t be more touching exploring darkness and light as impulse of the movement.

When Seisaku explored for first time this exercise Hijikata made him stay seated under the sun for two hours, Seisaku told us in that mythical way all talk about that time when Hijikata was alive.

After Yuri guided the physical training, we worked the exercises of today’s Butoh:

-Seated with one knee in the floor to keep ourselves active we explored light and darkness: light, receiving from the sun, up; darkness attracting our body down to the earth, covered by layers of darkness.

-Light and darkness, sky and earth, day and night, one after the other.

-Feeding ourselves of light (wholes with lights in the room).

-Looking for the lights (light coming in through the windows), those sources of light afar, from the buildings, from the street and again feeding our bodies with those lights.

-With wholes of lights all over the studio and windows opened looking for parts of the body absorbing the light, one by one.

-Walking in a forest full with fireflies, looking for them; two fireflies are in our stomach, so we can attract easily the others to our bodies.

-The night, the stars, the forest, fireflies flying into our body one by one flying all over or body, till be hundreds inside.

-Balls of light around attract us, threads of light linking those balls of light to our bodies.

-Holding a ball of light in front of us, the light of the ball (which is no more a spherical material object) shows us our family inside, it is the light of our best family moments that lightens our face.

Many moments during the exercises were remarkable, memorable, touching, full of… light.

After the workshop we went to an Okinawa’s food restaurant to have dinner, I said good bye to them and we took the impossible to forget selfie all together.

A little note apart:

I asked Seisaku if he had seen Hijikata’s choreography performance of Tohoku Kabuki Plan IV, as I watched the video yesterday at the Hijikata Archive, and he told me that he actually had performed in that show, and described some actions and reactions. Well, what can I say? Simple that speaks for itself the importance of me being on his side learning from the line of the original fathers.

(Thursday February 21st, 2019)

The path of patience (Small changes during Yoshito Ohno’s Butoh workshop)

I didn’t come to Japan to take Butoh intensive workshops, but to experience the common ground of studying and practicing Butoh with the masters at their places in their common routines. I’m committed to accept the way they teach and share their experiences, and then I’ll go back to my own work, and no more. 

Until now Yoshito Ohno’s workshop has been one of those places where I experienced more inner fights with my Western idea of how a workshop should be and how a teacher should teach. First, going twice a week to Kamihoshikawa from where I’m staying in Tokyo is exhausting; I make two hour travel to go and two going back from door to door. Exhausting probably is also the word to describe the unique style of Yoshito Ohno’s Butoh workshop these days: every time he repeats almost the same propositions to improvise, every time with the same words and choose of music, or at least you feel that way till the moment you start to spot the differences, and when some new proposition comes it is like breathing an air of freshness and novelty.

It wasn’t always that way. I remember my first two times coming to study Butoh with him, he had a quite a varied list of propositions to improvise and he used to be a very long time speecher, but these days he only uses a little group of propositions with minimum speech. 

This is the main structure (all accompanied by music, always the same song for every proposition):

-standing still, we are a work of art;

-meeting the space, the place where Kazuo Ohno created his dances;

-looking for a long range space, dancing in contact with places long afar.

-creating a silent night for the children of the war;

-feeling the blessing and suffering of the Virgin Mary;

-the Japanese characters for body and the body like bamboo;

-four Japanese characters for emotions;

-holding hands together the whole group with Moonlight Sonata and then dancing individually.

This has been almost the same structure since I came in mid January, but some changes happened: 

-he could insist in keeping the same proposition for two or three songs;

-regularly on Tuesday nights a colleague musician plays the guitar and sings while we dance;

-sometimes Yoshito feels the need to dance with us and he does do it;

-and also sometimes, like today, he proposes other improvisations: feeling the tissue and with it the space between our hands; being a flower holding a rose; or using a piece of silk like if the silk texture was our body. 

Today, for instance, he shared more about the impact Kazuo Ohno had in Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons, and we danced with the piece of silk during three songs from the album the musician dedicated to Ohno. And we finished dancing with the tissue. Those were remarkable changes indeed!

After the workshop -he always stays seated near where the CDs are- I approached him and told him I wanted to see what more music he had there, I was curious of course; then I saw an album of Edith Piaf and I expressed my excitement about watching that album there. He asked me to give him the CD, what I did, and asked his assistant to put the music on. After two minutes he was already at the center of the studio wearing a lady’s hat and danced La Vie en Rose. Moving around slowly and sometimes losing his balance Yoshito performed mostly with his left hand and his head, with his eyes. Our old master was inspired today.

Finally, during the tea time, I showed everyone some photos of a lovely Sakura in blossom I stumbled upon at Ueno park, and Yoshito told (in Japanese) to Michiyuki Kato, a dear colleague whos fidelity to the workshop is absolute since many years ago, that at the house garden there was a tree in blossom and he could take me to watch it. It was an Ume tree, a Plum, blossoming ahead of season to and in front of what used to be the last Kazuo Ohno’s bedroom. 

What I’m trying to share, personal experience aside, is that there is some sensitivity that comes when we are open to feel it. Accepting what the workshop is these days, be because Yoshito’s old age or illness, be because it is what it is now, those small changes make a great difference between sessions. It is a training, of course, my training. You know, after some years of working at any field, that not every day can be a new day, but repetition with some changes, with some details, will be the common daily experience. The eyes and ears of our body must be open to those small changes. It is a question of some quotidian deep personal introspection and care. 

That’s when we are rewarded by those simple but remarkable details, not by big new worlds, but by small pieces of land coming from the path of patience.

(Sunday February 17th, 2019)

The person becoming a body (Kudo Taketeru improvised performance during a concrete music concert)

When I wrote my email to reserve my place for this event I received a reply saying that this was not going to be a proper performance, but only “a gig”. Then at his worksop Kudo told me that it was going to be something simple, just a 15 minute improvisation. 

As I’d never seen him performing live before I didn’t care, I’d already made my mind to assist, and also because I know when a butohka says that it’s going to be a short improvisation it’s always a false statement, it never happens that way.

This was an improvised performance with two musicians playing what I call concrete music (but it could be only contemporary music; sorry for my ignorance), with chords and percussions, and Kudo Taketeru as a dancer.

At the beginning I felt that Kudo was listening and reacting to the sounds, looking for a way to follow the difficult noise; he was acting in some way, so I was watching a person on stage, not even a transformed actor. 

When he was a person little happened to me, even I had the impression that he was trying to be humorous unsuccessfully, curiously avoiding theatrically. Then after some 15 minutes (maybe more) of heating actions and repetitions he took off his clothes. It is when everything changed in front of us.

We saw a naked body now (just wearing a tiny thong), no more a person; he was a body, only a body. I don’t remember have seen that transformation since Ko Murobushi performances in the 1990s, with the difference that Ko was less theatrical, more primitive probably.

The moment we saw Kudo’s body naked he became movement, impulsive physical -improvised- actions; jumpings, falls, tremors, knocks on the walls, lashes on the walls, hits on the wall, we forgot the person to put all our attention in the moving body. Sometimes in the heat of the improvisation of that body the actor appeared again but this time using his masterful theatrical skills (if I can make it like that) becoming for instants a demon, an animal, a monster, a theatrical physical image, then erased the actor to be again only that body in those impulsive actions.

Kudo’s body is a spectacle when moving on stage too, because of how he moves, yes, but mostly for how it looks: big and heavy bonnes and developed muscles with almost no fat, skin with no hair, strong legs, strong gluteals, thin but muscular torso, long black hair, a big mouth, big hands (with long fingers), strong feet, so particular eyes that seems to have strabismus. He was sweating profusely and used that sweat on his improvisation like an expansion of his body, like a costume.

The music, as I said before, was difficult, improvised and interesting but complex, free but with some monotony coming directly from its style; never a melody, never sentimental feeling; there was no melodrama here, no sentimentalism, no way for a deep musical introspection, only flux of sound, running energy, noisy jumps and stops with a half of second of silence and then noise again. Kudo worked all the time listening to the music, with fluidity too, but sometimes with only external pace of movement. In one moment I felt the music started to follow him.

He was the king on that stage by that time.

There were climax, two or three perhaps. I remember one especially powerful because Kudo didn’t let it go away. That’s when the body he had become transformed itself in a demon, not a ghost because never was airy, it was a body becoming a demon of flesh. 

Yes, we had to wait for this moment for quite a long in terms of performance time, watching the person, the actor going in many ways, trying many forms, but it was worth the wait. 

(Atelier Dai Q Geijutsu, Tokyo. Thursday February 14th, 2019)

Takao Kawaguchi’s Body Sculpture workshop

This is a very particular workshop, based in the way Takao Kawaguchi worked his last conceptual dance, “About Kazuo Ohno”. Takao compiled a series of original videos of Kazuo Ohno’s famous performances and made the commitment to copy -or imitate- every one of the movements in those performances, putting aside the idea that many of these works were mostly improvised precisely in what he was going to imitate, the physical movement. “In one moment I can perhaps get the soul of his work, because this is a work of the soul”, said Kawaguchi.

I cannot say much about “About Kazuo Ohno” because I’ve only seen some parts of it in videos online; many have said that didn’t like it though, others that he is actually moving like and resembling Kazuo Ohno but without being moved by the work like Kazuo used to touch the public. Now, about the concept of possibly getting the soul of Ohno’s work through copying his movement -as expected as a follower of Kazuo Ohno’s path I am- I was not convinced at all. Well, I was partially wrong: it is actually a very interesting approach to be, in some way, directly influenced by Ohno’s work. 

The structure of the workshop (only 4 hours, one day) was very basic from my point of view; after some warming up exercises and words of introduction Takao made us physically explore some of the activities he did to approach the copy of the work of Kazuo Ohno:

-watch 5 short original recording videos of his performances (from Admiring La Argentina, My Mother, and The Death Sea);

-make a 10 seconds Imitation/inspiration/mockery of Kazuo’s style;

-taking only one video from My Mother (the moment with the flower), try to imitate his movements;

-with that same video, chosing only three still moments, imitate perfectly Ohno’s body (for this Takao showed us some of his drawings of every movement he did during the process of About Kazuo Ohno), like sculpting with our body the pose of Kazuo’s during his performance;

-Finally link those body sculptures with movement like if we were moving frame by frame in a recorded video giving them fluidity. Showing the result (in groups) to the others.

Since my time as student of the Grotowski training and the principles of Theatre Anthropology I’ve been very familiar with this kind of approach to the work, not actually imitating directly from videos of the masters, but working in sculpting the body and getting the movement in physical actions with a minutious detail from words, paintings, sculptures or memories. So, the work immediately made some sense to me, and also because in one moment I started to feel obviously not that Kazuo was feeling, but something unique that provoked this imitation: “the water running by the pipes of the fountain”, like Eugenio Barba said. 

If the initial goal of getting the soul of Kazuo’s work is putting aside and you take this approach as a training to follow the possible path of the movement of the master I think it could work much better for anyone, like the traditional way to teach performing arts in Asia, through direct imitation from the master; here the master is dead, but we have recordings regarded now not as documents but as an intrinsic part of the creative live work of the master. But obviously that’s my point of view. 

Takao Kawaguchi is kind and serious, not complicated in getting us to do exactly what he wanted, in reality guiding our exploration. Of course he was not trying to convince anyone that this is the only way to get the soul of Kazuo Ohno’s work, this is only his way of sharing his own exploration to do it. I liked his honesty.

To be true I probably would never have taken this workshop (in fact Kawaguchi gave it when I was in staying in Mexico some years ago and I was not interested in taking it), but destiny brought it to me during this training stay in Japan at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, and I let my curiosity go this time. I must say that it has been a quite interesting experience. 

At the end of the workshop we saw a whole 1977 original recording of Admiring La Argentina. 

(Yokohama, Japan. Monday February 11th, 2019)