No Intermission
in the

A review of
Dappin' Butoh's
by d.k. pan

Butoh performs Sidewinder
Left to right, Michele Kelly, Douglas Ridings, and Marco Zarate perform Dappin' Butoh's Sidewinder. Photograph by Mary Cutrera

Seated in the darkened theatre, I cannot help but overhear the words: "No intermission in the nightmare…." Audience members seated behind me are discussing the performance about to take place. I am here to witness a spectacle staged by the Dappin' Butoh troupe as part of the 7th annual Seattle Fringe Festival. The posters around town for this program, Sidewinder, were enticing, and the application of a western theme (not western as in occidental, rather as in wild, wild…) to a Butoh performance had piqued my curiosity.

The dance/theatre performance movement that is Butoh is truly a remarkable phenomenon. In refusing critical theory and manifestos, Butoh is the "anti-modern" answer to "art for art's sake." Since its inception with the staging of Forbidden Colors in May of 1958, Butoh has developed to become a seminal influence on international dance and theatre, as well as a social movement of dissent against rationalism, Westernization, the codification of aesthetics and, more specifically, the traditions of Japanese theatre.

By embracing the advances made by Western avant-garde artists — in particular, Genet, De Sade, Lautremont, Artaud, Lorca, and later the Theatre Laboratory of Grotowski — the founders of Butoh forged an art of the body.

Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-86) is credited as the "architect" of Butoh. The origins of the word Butoh trace back to the Ankoku-Butoh (usually translated as "black dance" or "dance of utter darkness") school and movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kazuo Ohno, now in his early nineties and still performing, is often considered a co-founder of Butoh. From the underground of the Tokyo art scene, Butoh performances have included collaborations with many artists of varied disciplines, including the writers Yukio Mishima, Shuzo Takiguchi and Tatuhiko Shibusawa; photographer Eiko Hosoe; and visual artist Yokoo Tanadori.

While adapting the theory of the grostesque and German expressionism as measures of a continuum, Butoh has adopted the language of poetics in lieu of clear-cut critical definition. The influences and the traditions of modern and now postmodern art alluded to in Butoh poetics and visually demonstrated in Butoh performance provide the framework from which to view and appreciate the form.

In its incorporation of subversive techniques such as spontaneity and improvisation, Butoh seems a kindred spirit to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Other common elements are the mining of the subconscious and dream imagery for inspiration, and the use of childhood memories for source material. The juxataposition of irrational sequences allows and even provokes the audience to abandon its characteristic passivity: by utilizing a "method of madness" and seemingly nonsensical relations between images, Butoh forces the viewer to make the connections, to build his or her own narrative. The performance becomes a beckoning, a declaration for order, for meaning.

Perhaps Butoh is the best realization of Artaud's call for a revolution in theatre, a revolution of "culture-in-action," in which the barrier between the spectacle and the spectator becomes blurred to the point of non-existence, the crepuscular light inducing illusions of an eternal twilight world. However, the source of the Butoh's tranformative elements remains the body.

Butoh is an art of ritual. In shattering accepted notions of what theatre and dance are, Butoh returns to the origins of art and performance as invocation. There are many references to ancient Japanese shamanistic rites and universal Jungian archetypal themes.

It is the paradoxes intrinsic to existence itself which make the definition of Butoh difficult, if not impossible. By depicting the connections among us all, the progenitors of Butoh have confronted us with mirrors through which the subject is in fact the object. In a sense, Butoh is a "metaphysical" art form linking the physics — the science, with the spiritual — the mystical.

Butoh is often refered to as being about "metamorphosis, not metaphors." The What is Butoh? question is perhaps best way in which to describe it. Such a question is answered simply, by the spirit of perpetual seeking, the only constant being the refusal of constants and constructs which would imprison the Butoh dancer. Through the discipline of its purveyors and the dedication of its supporters, a Butoh performance exists as its own explanation. As Yukio Mishima stated in his essay Dance Of Crisis:

The very crisis and uncertainty of human existence must be manifested as it is through the genuine expression of the human body with little or no artificial prerequisite… What seems to be abtruse is but the dissonance of scraping off old paint….

The music begins, the performance unfolds. Figures in white appear from the shadows. They move slowly, seemingly unraveling beyond recognized human forms. They are but bodies belonging to the earth, tumbleweeds rolling in the lonely prairie. The theatre lights are dim as dawn awakening; it is the time between twilight and the darkness from which it arises. The winds howl, the screen behind the stage presents an image from the familiar western setting: cacti and sagebrush. The stage depicts the wanderings of the fortune-seeker in a land yet civilized. Invoked by these elements is a collective memory, an imprint, harbored within each of us: the silent strength of Clint Eastwood, the myth of the Marlboro man — statuesque men of action, not words. Also existing within this collective memory are elements of a greater anonymity, a more delicate evanescence: faded photographs, tombstone tales.

As the bodies on the stage coalesce into one, separating then into many, I am reminded of what the critic Jae Carlsson said in a review of Dappin' Butoh: Butoh is less a critique than a mode of intense listening to the processes of human growth. Though some of the gestures are literal — the twirling of the lassos, the riding of imagined horses — I am constantly reminded by the seeming inexpressibility of certain gestures that I am not watching a performance, rather I am in one.

There is the rodeo scene, in which the cowboy is also the calf. The clown arrives from among the audience ranks and embarks upon a melancholy dance. He is a relic wondering where the others went, alone on the empty stage. The scene transmutes into a catwalk promenade. Now it is playtime at the asylum, recess in the institution. A brothel of every possible pairing is perhaps the climax of the show: the figures invite the outside to enter and, we, the audience, find ourselves imprisioned in a window display, staring into a world of allowance and lust-filled laughter. The models stare back in a game of fun house mirrors and now we must wonder: Who is the object? Who is the subject?

The bells ring and the performers scramble to escape. Revealed is the nonsense of children rehearsed. The threat is that which looms beyond dreams and solitude, the threat is the caretakers' corrections. A snake charmer glides in, a rattle in each hand. In time, slithering shapes slide in from the margins of the stage. I am reminded of waves sweeping over shores, over shells and stones, until the sands have been washed of all traces of footprints, cleansed of human presence. These images invade me. From the collective experience of numbering one among an audience of witnesses, I am transported to a personal journey of memory and imagined futures. The serpentine bodies become characters in a barrom brawl, the criminal is hung at the end of a chain of mime-like movements. This is the narrative, a stereotypical story from Bonanza or a "spaghetti western." As the dream comes to an end with a closing bow, I recall what another reviewer has stated in watching a previous piece by this troupe: "…as fascinating and disturbing as watching a live birth…."

By incorporating mixed-media to present the work, Artistic Director Joan Laage has succeeded in both demonstrating the elusive nature of the Butoh aesthetic and in subverting the cliches of western themes to a universal relevance. The silent film era technique of a literary narrative provides the backdrop upon which the film clips become the setting. Included among these clips were scenes from The Westerner, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Rodeo Bloopers. The sound collage of Tucker Martine is also effective in enhacing the ambiance appropriate to each scenario in its incorporation of music from such varied sources as Aboriginal Sound Instruments, Radio Crooners, Great Ladies of Son, The Crumb Soundtrack, Shakuhachi, Indonesian Rebab,, among others.

By pairing the distinctivly Eastern art form of Butoh with the idealized history of settlement and conquest of wilderness, Laage creates a medium of primal connections. Sidewinder is a realization of the similiarities in all cultures, yet it undermines preconcieved notions of how the self is viewed. The collective memory accepted as history, and individual personal remembrances, are presented without being forced into a pat narrative structure. Part caberat, part mime, with the overall physicality of dance and the expressivity of theatre… all these elements are included.end


All contents © 1997, 1998, pomegranates webzine. All rights reserved.