Butoh and Western Art


by Bob DeNatale

As an American artist working in the form of Butoh, it has always been important for me to explore the Western Roots of the work that we do. I’m not Japanese and have no interest in dancing as if I were. Whether we choose in the end to call it Butoh or not, there is a Western path into this work. What follows are a few thoughts on the subject.


There were, of course, many Western influences on Tatsumi Hijikta and Kazuo Ono, the founders of Butoh. Before World War II, the only authentic Japanese dances were traditional (kagura, buyo, bugaku, no). The very idea that dance could embody the spirit of the individual dancer, rather than simply conforming to a set tradition, came to Japan through Western Dance, which was introduced to Japan at the turn of the century. But it was only after the war, that Japanese dancers began to find their way beyond simply imitating Western modes of Modern Dance. Especially important in this development was the influence of the German Expressionist Neu Danz, especially the work of Mary Wigman.

One of Kazuo Ono’s earliest inspirations to dance was a performance he saw in 1934 of Harald Kreutzberg, the German Expressionist dancer who was a student of Wigman’s. Ono’s first dance teacher was Baku Ishii, the pioneer of distinctly Japanese Modern dance, who had himself studied Neue Danz with Kosaku Yamada. In 1936, Ono began studying modern dance with Takaya Eguchi, another student of Wigman’s, and he continued to study with Eguchi after World War II ended. Hijikata studied dance with Kazuko Matsumura, who was herself a student of Eguchi’s.

Wigman’s conception of dance was that dance should involve a spiritual transformation of the dancer. She stressed that dance “does not represent, it is.” She often danced in silence or to simple percussion scores, because she felt that music should not dictate or control the movement of the dancers, but should support the dancer’s movements, which must spring from the dancer’s inner life. She sought to transcend the personal and become a vessel for universal forces. All these elements are also present in Butoh. Wigman’s description of her own dance as a “lustful destruction of the physical being, a process in which, for seconds, I almost felt a oneness with the cosmos” could have been written by a Butoh dancer. Indeed, Akira Kasai upon watching a film of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance (1926) at the San Francisco Butoh Festival, remarked emphatically, “That is Butoh!” The exaggerated wildness of her movement, combined with a psychic intensity, the low, down into the earth position of her body, the primitive percussion score, the celebration of the irrational, all presage the coming of Butoh.

You can watch a video clip of Wigman’s “Witch Dance” here:

In addition to the influence of Neu Danz, Hijikata was also very interested in the writings of French authors like Rimbaud, Lautreamont, de Sade, and most especially Jean Genet . Hijikata’s first Butoh performance, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors), in 1959 was deeply influenced by Genet’s sensibilities. The influence of Genet on the development of Butoh can be found in the surrealist absurdity, in the fascination with the grotesque (transforming the ugly into the beautiful), the rejection of societal norms, the celebration of poverty, and the exploration of eroticism.

Antonin Artaud’s collection of essays “The Theater and Its Double” was first translated into Japanese in 1965. It had the same galvanizing affect on the Japanese avant-garde as it did on the American a few years earlier. Artaud’s call for the return of theater to its primal roots in shamanism, ritual, mysticism, and the body resonated with Hijikata, and his 1968 performance Rebellion of the Body revealed the influence of Artaud. Hijikata danced wearing an erect golden phallus beneath a white kimono. What followed was an explosion of violence and violation, dancing spastically, breaking the neck of a chicken, flinging his body violently against large metal plates, and ending with his body suspended by ropes and pulled into a position of crucifixion, as if about to be torn apart. It was Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty made flesh. But for Hijikata this piece represented his final break from Western dance. From then on his dance would more and more search for the Japanese, in his own body, in his memories of childhood, in the bodies of his dancers. Still, one of Hijikata’s most prized possessions was a recording of the radio program “To Have Done With the Judgment of God” recorded by Artaud shortly before his death. The continuing influence of Artaud can be seen in Butoh’s ritualistic elements and in its search for primal modes of being and perceiving (primal in the sense of exploring pre-cultural aspects of human existence).


The profound influence of the Spanish dancer Antonia Merce (La Argentina) on Kazuo Ono is well known. He first saw her dance in 1928 and was deeply moved by her performance. It was this performance that inspired him to be a dancer. Forty-nine years later, Ono was inspired to come out of retirement when a painting reminded him of her. He first performed his homage to her, “Admiring La Argentina,” at the age of 71.

It has also been suggested that Jean-Louis Barrault’s role in the French film Children of Paradise (which Ono saw many times), with his face painted white and aura of innocence was also influential on Ono’s performance style.

It can also, of course, be noted that while the affinity of Butoh to Buddhist philosophy is clear, Ono himself was a Catholic, and this sensibility also pervades and informs all of his work. Ono is often described as the light to Hijikata’s darkness, an optimism that is entwined with his faith. “Jesus was a Butoh master,” he is quoted a saying.

Another important butoh performer, Akira Kasai, left butoh dance for 14 years, 7 of which he spent in Germany studying the Eurythmy of Rudolph Steiner, the spiritualist, educator and philosopher. Now that Kasai has returned to Butoh, you can see the influence of Steiner in his use of sound and words, and his explorations of how the relationship of body and space is affected by mental processes.

Among current performers in the Butoh world, Eiko and Koma cite as their two mentors in dance Kazuo Ono and Manja Chmiel, a disciple of Mary Wigman.

Diego Pinon, a protege of Ono and Min Tanaka, has notably drawn deeply on the earthy spirituality of his native Mexico to create a Western form of performance ritual that he nevertheless still calls Butoh.


My point in all this is not simply to survey the Western influences on Hijikata and Ono, and certainly not to deny what was specifically Japanese about them, but to explore how we in the West who are so deeply inspired by their work and the work of other Butoh pioneers can find a way through our own cultural heritage into the work we do.

Butoh has similarities to many forms of Western performance that were developing at the same time as it was taking shape, in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Antonin Artaud’s writings on theater (The Theater and its Double was translated into English in 1958) had the same powerful influence on American artists seeking to revitalize the art of their performance as in Japan.

Butoh is certainly related, in spirit, if not historically, to the work of Jerzy Grotowski. At the very same time Hijikata and Ono were taking their first steps into Butoh, Grotowski was doing work with his Polish Theater Laboratory that matched Butoh in many aspects: in its insistence on absolute authenticity of movement, The Constant Princein its spiritual questing that sought to transcend individual psychology, in the primacy of inner impulse as the source of all movement even in training exercises, in the themes of violence and violation explored in their productions, and in the astonishing physical and psychic presence displayed by the performers. This work is thoroughly explored and documented in the book “Towards a Poor Theater.”

After the 60’s ended, Grotowski abandoned the creation of live performance for audiences because he felt that for him there was an irresolvable conflict between art as performance and spiritual practice (and he did stress that these were simply his solutions to the issues he addressed, that others might find other solutions).

For the remainder of his life (almost thirty years), Grotowski stopped directing productions and devoted himself entirely to exploring the use of theatrical techniques (movement, dialogue, chant and singing, mise-en-scene) as a vehicle for the personal spiritual development of the performer. He referred to these stages of his work alternately as “Paratheatrics,” “Theater of Sources,” “Objective Theater” and “Art as Vehicle.” Jerzy GrotowskiWhile he sometimes invited outsiders to witness the work of his students, he never considered this work done for an audience. This stage of Grotowski’s work is best documented in English in two books “At Work with Grotowski on Physical Action” by Thomas Richards, his main collaborator during the last ten years of his life, and “The Grotowski Sourcebook,” edited by Lisa Wolford and Richard Schechner.

There is a whole genre of performance, especially on the West Coast of the U.S., that explores dance, theater and ritual as a means of spiritual growth and has arrived at many of the same places as butoh. Practitioners like Anna Halprin in Marin, Sara Shelton Mann in San Francisco (and the various alumni of her Contraband dance company) and Antero Ali, first in Seattle now in Berkeley (who calls his work Ritual Theater, and sometimes Paratheatrics, after Grotowski), all have in some way or another touched upon the same ground as Butoh. For example, in Ali’s Ritual Theater, participants first create an inner state of what he calls “No-Form” in order to make space for the energies of the universe (whatever is being explored at the moment) to enter into their bodies and move them into dance. This is perfectly analogous to Butoh’s Empty Body and Butoh’s striving for a way of being that transcends individual psychology, dancing from a place of non-intention.

Sara Shelton Mann’s work in dance-theater is also deeply rooted in the idea of performance as a vehicle for personal transformation. Her work explores shamanism, and ritual, improvisation and meditation, Qi Gung and energy states. She was herself influenced by her work with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Cohen’s “Body-Mind Centering” is resonant with Butoh in it’s striving to overcome ingrained and habitual patterns of movement and also in its attempts to bring a direct awareness to the experience of being in a body.

Perhaps because of its roots in the chaotic 1960’s, Butoh also has much in common with a certain strain of Western “Performance Art,” especially in its preoccupation with trying to do something “real” that rejects and abandons the artifice of theatricality. The idea that Butoh is a transformative way of seeing and being in the world, rather than simply a dance style finds an analog, for example, in The Living Theater, though perhaps without Butoh’s emphasis on rigorous discipline as way to avoid self-indulgence (a discipline that was always very much present in every phase of Grotwoski’s work) and with more conscious political intent than Butoh has ever had.

For many Butoh artists, there is a fundamental belief that by putting the body into “states of crisis” (by many different means, depending on the temperament of the individual) a person can overcome artifice and find a more spontaneous and authentic way of being. In this, one can find a connection between Butoh and such western performance artists as Chris Burden and Joseph Beuys. When Burden had himself shot in the arm or lay in a cloth sack in the middle of a busy freeway, Joseph Beuyshe was risking the physical safety of his body in much the same way as Sankai Juko when they spectacularly (and ultimately tragically) lowered themselves headfirst from rooftops hanging from the feet by ropes. When Joseph Beuys spent a week in a room alone with a wild coyote he was seeking a transformative experience just as Butoh artists do, shamanic in its intensity. I’ve known Butoh artists to perform almost naked in freezing cold (on glaciers, outdoors on a cold NY winter day), or bury themselves alive as in a grave, or have their bodies pierced on stage, all in search of that authentic experience, that real (non-theatrical) moment.

In America, of the many styles of Butoh, the one most well-known is, of course, characteristically thought of as involving extraordinarily slow movements. This creates for both audience and performer a transformed relationship with time and can generate states of mind that approach those of trance or spiritual meditation. In this it is similar to the experimental theater work that Robert Wilson was creating in the 60’s, extended (sometimes as long as 12 hours) and slow dreamscapes that invited audience and performer to enter a different way of seeing, thinking and being.

When you look deeply into Western culture you can find many artists and thinkers whose work lived in the same realms as modern Butoh artists: William Blake (whom Ono refers to more than once in the compilation book “Kazuo Ono’s World: Within and Without”), Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Jung (especially in his later writings on Alchemy). I could, of course, go on and on.


A Personal Reflection

Given all this, then, why do I even call what I do Butoh? Does the word simply carry too much weight of cultural baggage, too many expectations of what one might have experienced before, too many connotations of being quintessentially Japanese? Does it matter what I call what I do? Does it matter to anyone beside myself? Does it even matter to me?

What has always attracted to me to Butoh are things that set it apart from other kinds of performance. Butoh is not dance; Butoh is not theater. Butoh may be seen by some in the West as simply another dance technique like hiphop or Graham that can be learned and assimilated into a personal performance style, but this has never been true. Butoh is not a dance technique; it is a way of looking at the world – a way of looking at the world that remains as radical and challenging to us now as it was almost fifty years ago.
Perhaps Butoh is simply a word we use to describe a rediscovery of something that has existed for thousands of years, a rediscovery in the sense that certain things must be rediscovered individually over and over again throughout human history. For me, Butoh did not so much start a movement, as complete a circle. When I began to study Butoh it seemed to be a form I was already moving towards or working in rudimentally. Many other Butoh artists I know have had the same experience. For 16 years I’ve called what I do Butoh because it is a word that gives context to my work and situates it in a dialogue with other artists. If the word no longer suits that dialogue, that’s fine with me. But for the sake of right now, I’ll call it Butoh because I don’t know what else to call it.

The Surrealist Louis Aragon once said in praise of Robert Wilson’s work that it was not Surrealism but what they had always imagined would come after Surrealism – a total freedom of the human spirit. Perhaps, what I am describing is not Butoh, but that which will come after it.

Today when I go see a Butoh performance, I often feel like I am seeing the same piece over and over again: the same costumes, the same makeup, the same moods, the same styles of music, the same quality of movement, the same themes. It’s as if every time I went to the theater they were doing another version of King Lear. A great play, but still …

Butoh is not Hijikata’s and Ono’s way of moving. Butoh is not wearing white makeup and moving slowly. Butoh is not dance-theater.

There is a Western way into Butoh: Aeschylus (“And so we’ve come to the end of the World …”), Euripides, Plato, the Gnostic Gospels, Meister Eckhart, Alchemy, Bosch, William Blake, Poe, Kafka, Carl Jung, Surrealism, Stanislovski, Artaud, Genet, Mary Wigman, Jerzy Growtowski, Julien Beck, Eugenio Barba, Body-Mind Centering, Authentic Movement, etc., etc., etc., etc.

There are things I love about Butoh, that make what we do unique.
Kazuo Ono said, “Do not try to be good.”

The work is not about being professional, or seeking approval, but about being honest and present. The world we see is an illusion and butoh is about the energy that plays beyond that illusion, not simply surface shapes and movements. The best butoh pieces have a strange quality – they are neither performances nor daily reality and often it is only days later that you realize how good they were, because of the way the images and energies linger and resonate. (This means, of course, that audiences have to learn how to watch a butoh performance, because the qualities they are used to looking for in a performance are not the qualities Butoh artists strive for.)

I love the eroticism in Butoh. For Hijikata it was a way to overcome artifice – as was his idea of “the body in crisis.” Where is the lack of artifice in our Butoh? Where is the raw soul, exposed and vulnerable and burning on stage?
And then there is the concept of The Empty Body.

How can you move from a place of non-intention, yet stay totally present and engaged in your spirit? This to me is the heart of the challenge of Butoh. It is the challenge of a way of being in the world.

Hijikata said, “Is what we call memory, really memory? What is memory if not the sum of all those things that have been eaten, erased, eliminated – in a word, all that has ceased to exist? And is not the world made so as to attend to that sum? I have no idea on what yardstick our memory was first based. But if we would only annihilate this “memory,” then an infinite world would come about where Butoh could find its proper place. Unless we deal with such problems we will only end up worrying about this straitened world – and thus, putting a lock on the door to the universe.”

Butoh is radical the way Buddhism is radical. Because it cries out, “I do not exist! I am an illusion! But I am here anyway, and what am I going to do with that knowledge?”

Our work should be a ritual; it should be a transformation inside of us. Every day, every rehearsal, every performance. If not, we are just pretending, play-acting.

Butoh at its heart is an exploration of what it means to be incarnated in a body, an exploration of the relationship between body, spirit, consciousness, and energy. There are as many ways to explore these relationships as there are people to do it. And through that exploration, we find that total freedom of the spirit Aragon spoke of. Not, as Ono says, freedom to do what you want or what you will, but freedom from thought and will.

Hijikata said, “Butoh plays with time, it also plays with perspective, if we, humans, learn to see things from the perspective of an animal, an insect, or even inanimate objects. The road trodden everyday is alive … we should value everything.”

Rumi tells the story of a poor holy man who visited a king. The king greeted him saying, “Oh, ascetic!” The holy man interrupted him saying, “You are the ascetic.” The king said, “Why do you call me an ascetic? Everything in this entire kingdom is mine. What do you have but the clothes on your back?” The holy man replied, “You are looking at it the wrong way. This world and the next, along with all your kingdom, belong to me. I have taken possession of the entire universe; it is you who content yourself with a morsel and a rag.”

That is why I do Butoh.