Butoh: A Dance of Death + Darkness - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butoh: A Dance of Death + Darkness

By Rebecca Sanchez


Embracing aging in a foul yet beautiful form of dance might be the hottest thing in Western arts since yoga.

Mewling. Moaning. Gasping. Panting. Twitching.

A girl in an oversized black sweater, wavy auburn hair spilling down her tailbone, seemed to be having an emotional fit. Her body curled over her feet, she groaned like she was getting rid of something terrible. But the exercise was this: Position the front of the body against the wall, firmly and flatly pressing the face against it, eyes shut and “look in between your eyebrows.”

The girl continued. Quivering. Slumping. Screeching. Clawing. Scratching. Her arms extended above her head, one after the other. Her fingers spread and coiled in a kind of vertical crawling — an attempt to scale the wall. 

If there is one thing this art form does, it forges a new, primal and instinctive mode of communication

It was a Sunday evening and she was standing in a room at the New York City Capoeira Angola Center, a culture and dance studio adorned with frames, plaques, certificates, candles, flowers, flags, feathers and banners, all marking the space as uniquely Afro-Brazilian. But behind a door labeled “Room B,” Vangeline, an NYC-based French Butoh instructor, was teaching a room full of budding artists about a dance easily and without hesitation described as eerie. 

Group of 3 persons performing a dance routine in white, cream and black costumes

The Ume Group’s Butoh Electra performing

Source Ume Group

Butoh, or “dance of darkness,” has in recent years emerged as a disturbingly exhilarating dance force, growing in visibility particularly among Brooklynites — although hipster crowds flock to performances all over New York, selling out nearly every show in every borough. CAVE and Resobox Theater, both in Queens, N.Y., have long been selling out shows. You can find enclaves in Boulder, Colo., Seattle and San Francisco. 

Butoh sometimes involves drooling, contortions of the face and sharp, jagged movements.

And Boulder and Seattle are home to two of the biggest Butoh festivals in the U.S., bringing in internationally renowned artists and choreographers from London, Japan, Mexico, and just about all over. 

The dance has also appeared in pop culture, through films like Jay Anania’s 2012 The Letter starring Winona Ryder and James Franco, influenced characters like the ghost in The Grudge and been the main dance style for a “boss” in the videogame Bust a Groove 2. 

Studies in Stillness, a weekend-long intensive workshop hosted by San Francisco performance art ensemble Bad Unkl Sista, will unite new and experienced artists from January 24 through 26 to “excavate and discover new experiences of communicating that do not rely on words but rather on a more primal and instinctive form of understanding.” 

If there is one thing this art form does for certain, it unquestionably forges a new, primal and instinctive mode of communication. 

It can at once be foul and beautiful, wild and hypercontrolled, heavy and light — sometimes involving drooling, contortions of the face and sharp, jagged movements. It flirts with surrealism and themes of aging, homosexuality, death and pedophilia, issues that in the West — where people often resist aging, cosmetically correct “ugliness” and fear the unknown — have long been treated as taboo. 

This may be precisely why the ghastly post-atomic Japanese dance, which was created as a socially challenging performance art in opposition to Western influence after World War II, has slowly crept into the American mainstream dance scene.

In watching — or “witnessing” — a work of Butoh, the audience member comes to participate in a “conversation.”

Jordan Rosin, who discovered Butoh four years ago while studying theatrical movement at Syracuse University and has since co-founded his own ensemble called The Ume Group,  described the growing interest in the dance as “a desire for and attraction to the grotesque.” 

Color headshot of Jordan Rosin in blue v-neck sweater shot on a white background

Jordan Rosin, co-founder of The Ume Group

Source Makoto Onozuka

“It seems that in our culture right now, people are looking for something that is deeper and more…of the being and of the spirit, rather than being inundated every day with commercial things that impact our systems — our visual, our psychic systems,” he said. But Anastazia Louise, founder and artistic director for Bad Unkl Sista, says the attraction is actually more profound and that the only way to understand works of Butoh is to think conceptually. 

In watching — or “witnessing,” as it is often called — a work of Butoh, the audience member comes to participate in a “conversation.” This, according to Anastazia, is another reason crowds are drawn in. 

“It’s tailored to each witness that is experiencing it,” she said. “The thing about the Butoh is that even if it is choreographed, it changes based on the energy of the witness. It’s more of a conversation than any dance form that I’ve ever seen or experienced. When I watch it, I squirm in my seat, I move around because the visceral energy of witnessing gets inside me.”

Even if it is choreographed, Butoh changes based on the energy of the witness.

According to Japanese dancer Eiko, of Eiko & Koma, Butoh is different because it has no fixed definition of art style or aesthetic and the influence artists and their works have are varied and must be considered independently from the broader idea of Butoh.

“Anyone who calls themselves Butoh can be regarded as Butoh dancers,” said Eiko. “There is no examination required or expected process of study.”

Added Eiko, ”We do not want our audience to see our work and make a judgment on other artists’ works such as our teachers or Butoh as a whole, nor would we want to be limited in what the term implies. We want people to feel, think, talk about each work and their experience of it.”

In short: Works of Butoh may be becoming more visible in the U.S.’s mainstream culture, but the idea of Butoh itself — ever-shifting and mutating — cannot be so easily tracked.  

This is perhaps best explained by Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata’s request in the 1960s that his dancers go out and spread the art into the world. As it extends, it is altered — affected by each performing artist and the perception of each viewer — and becomes something different for everyone. 

As appreciation for Butoh swells and the quest to understand it gains more curious minds, it is perhaps best to look to Hijikata for what might be the clearest yet most mystifying (in true Butoh fashion) explanation of its form. “Western dance begins with its feet firmly planted on the ground whereas Butoh begins with a dance wherein the dancer tries in vain to find his feet.”  

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