Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy

Sondra Fraleigh
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Both a refraction of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a protest against Western values, butoh is a form of Japanese dance theater that emerged in the aftermath of World War II. Sondra Fraleigh chronicles the growth of this provocative art form from its midcentury founding under a sign of darkness to its assimilation in the twenty-first century as a poignant performance medium with philosophical and political implications._x000B__x000B_Through highly descriptive, thoughtful, and emotional prose, Fraleigh traces the transformative alchemy of this metaphoric dance form by studying the international movement inspired by its aesthetic mixtures. While butoh has retained a special identity related to its Japanese background, it also has blossomed into a borderless art with a tolerant and inclusive morphology gaining prominence in a borderless century. _x000B__x000B_Employing intellectual and aesthetic perspectives to reveal the origins, major figures, and international development of the dance, Fraleigh documents the range and variety of butoh artists around the world with first-hand knowledge of butoh performances from 1973 to 2008. Her definitions of butoh's morphology, alchemy, and philosophy set a theoretical framework for poetic and engaging articulations of twenty butoh performances in Japan, Europe, India, and the West. With a blend of scholarly research and direct experience, she also signifies the unfinished nature of butoh and emphasizes its capacity to effect spiritual transformation and bridge cultural differences.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09013-4
    Subjects: Performing Arts, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Alchemyis an early unscientific form of chemistry exploring the power of enchantment and transformation. Alchemists sought the conversion of base metals into gold and a universal cure for disease, just asbutoh-ka(butoh dancers) attend to metamorphosis and healing through the body. In butoh, as in alchemy, the darkness of material needs to be undergone before transformation and integration can occur. Hijikata Tatsumi, the principle founder of butoh and an outspoken agnostic, created his dance under the sign of darkness, but it morphed throughout his lifetime. In his final workshop, he encouraged students to disperse intonothingness—quite a...


    • Chapter One Butoh Alchemy
      (pp. 11-36)

      Butoh is a form of dance theater born in Japan out of the turmoil of the post–World War II era, partly as a refraction of America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more generally in protest of Western materialism: “I don’t want a bad check called democracy,” is how butoh founder Hijikata Tatsumi sometimes put it. I first saw butoh at the Festival of New Dance in Montreal in 1985 with Nakajima Natsu’s danceNiwa(The Garden). I wrote aboutNiwaand sent Nakajima the article. She invited me to Japan and took me to a butoh class with...

    • Chapter Two The Morphology of Butoh
      (pp. 37-62)

      We find in butoh that everyone has a different rock quality, and that it comes to each of us as a different task and transformational gift, as in my experience:

      Sometimes when I dance rock, I become still, solid, and fearless. And other times I melt into the rock, embracing, leaning, and giving myself to the shale. In my early sixties, I walked across a large field of hardened lava rock on the big island of Hawaii, hiking back to see the active flowing red fingers bubble up from under the earth’s surface at dusk. With our guide, we watched...

    • Chapter Three Is Butoh a Philosophy?
      (pp. 63-78)

      Hijikata Tatsumi said butoh was not a philosophy but that “someday it might be.”¹ The previous chapter has already pursued some philosophical questions concerning morphology, how the body is conceived and presented in butoh, especially its nondualistic basis. We also considered the bodily lived ambiguity of butoh, its unfinished and vulnerable aspects. Here we ask whether butoh is a philosophy or if one can be discovered in it? To answer this, we need to continue to develop themes from the previous chapter, but in a philosophical context.

      I believe there are philosophies implicit in dance forms if we take the...


    • 1 One Thousand Days of Sunshine and Peace Hijikata Tatsumi in Kyoto (1973)
      (pp. 81-90)

      Hijikata is the dark soul and architectural genius of butoh. One of his final performances was his solo “Leprosy” in his danceSummer Storm, performed by his company in the Westside Auditorium at Kyoto University in 1973. A year earlier, his danceA Story of Smallpox(1972) also connected with thematics of disease. He never performed publicly himself after 1973, but he continued to work with his dance company until his death in 1986. Ohno Yoshito, who had known Hijikata throughout his revolutionary career, says that near his death Hijikata rose on his deathbed in the hospital and performed his...

    • 2 Whole World Friend Ohno Kazuo in Tokyo (1993)
      (pp. 91-101)

      Ohno Kazuo, a well-traveled, world-famous performer by 1993, was presented as a treasure of Japan for an international audience in Tokyo at the JADE festival, which drew dance scholars and performers from Asia, America, and Europe. The final ceremony and performance of August 7 featured six of Japan’s celebrated elderly dancers, and the last one was Ohno, the only nontraditional performer. The program says, “There are not many examples in the world of performances to welcome elderlies with admiration or to worship them.” In Japan they have such celebrations in dances calledOkina Mai.

      Ohno calls his dance on this...

    • 3 History Lessons Joan Laage in New York (1994) David Grenke in New York (1998)
      (pp. 102-111)

      Scratch butoh, and you will find the original modern dance movement underneath. We have already observed that butoh founders Ohno Kazuo and Hijikata Tatsumi both studied modern forms, especially as represented in German Expressionism. Although they departed considerably from this early source of their dance training, it nevertheless informed their work. If one looks carefully at the aging photographs of Harald Kreutzberg, the German dancer who inspired Ohno Kazuo to take up dancing, one will see the inner calm and flow of Ohno himself as well as his special flare for the dramatic. Ohno didn’t study directly with Kreutzberg, but...

    • 4 Crocodile Time Furukawa Anzu in San Francisco (1999)
      (pp. 112-115)

      Furukawa Anzu has studied modern dance, ballet, and butoh, as we see through the blend of styles in her solo dance concertThe Crocodile Time. Her nonliteral characters, or anticharacters, transform continuously and collect emotion through time and interpretation. One cannot name them; they are signs and transparencies.

      The Crocodile Timethat I saw in San Francisco in 1999 represents forty years in the growth of butoh, but it is very different from Hijikata Tatsumi’s butoh beginning in 1959. Like Hijikata, Furukawa is a highly skilled mover, an inventive choreographer, and user of surrealist tactics. Her movement pallet is not...

    • 5 Goya La Quinto del Sordo Furukawa Anzu in San Francisco (2000)
      (pp. 116-122)

      Absurdity and the grotesque mark German Expressionism and butoh—as well as Pina Bausch’s Neoexpressionist work. Surpassing Expressionism, however, the dark side of butoh is a yin-yang transformer of reality. Butoh helps bridge the shadow self with the ego as it makes the unconscious conscious, risking bedlam and testing the erotic nature of the body. Trusting uneasy bodily states, butoh shadow figures display awkwardness. Shaking and twitching through the body, off-balance, wounded movements often portend an uncanny humor. Butoh aesthetics embody these somaticqualiafor a reason, as from mud and darkness the lotus rises and from burnt wood a...

    • 6 The Sounding Bell Denise Fujiwara in Toronto (2000)
      (pp. 123-128)

      Sumida Riveris a haunting dance created especially for Denise Fujiwara of Toronto by choreographer Nakajima Natsu of Tokyo, one of the core founders of butoh in close association with Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. Based on a popularNohdrama,Sumida Rivercould be calledButoh-Noh, so clearly does it articulate the synthesis of classicalNohwith contemporary butoh. In it we see how boundaries both ethnic and aesthetic are crossed. Fujiwara’s performance of this work has been featured in dance festivals in Seattle, Washington, DC, Vancouver, Calgary, and Copenhagen and seen on tour in Ecuador and India. In...

    • 7 Ancient Dance and Headless Tamano Hiroko and SU-EN in San Francisco (2002)
      (pp. 129-134)

      Tamano Koichi and Tamano Hiroko formed Harupin-Ha Butoh Company in Berkeley, California, in 1987 when they relocated from Tokyo, Japan. They are well known to international audiences, performing with the esteemed Japanese musician Kitaro on his world tour in 2000. His mentor and butoh’s progenitor, Hijikata Tatsumi, anointed Koichi the “bow-legged Nijinsky.” Hiroko is a noted butoh teacher and has influenced a generation of dancers, musicians, and creative artists. The Tamanos are deeply influenced by Hijikata’s style of butoh, but Hiroko takes liberty as well.

      In her soloAnc-ient, Hiroko dances a free-form style at the Butoh Festival on August...

    • 8 Salt Ledoh in San Francisco (2002)
      (pp. 135-138)

      There can be serendipity in butoh. This is apparent in the work of Ledoh, the director of the performance community Salt Farm in San Francisco. Ledoh was born into the Ka-Ren community, Burma’s largest ethnic minority. Since returning to the United States after a period of intensive study in Japan with butoh adept Katsura Kan, Ledoh has performed widely. In his program notes, he says that his choreography and Salt Farm community are “a response to fundamental tensions between technology and the survival of the organic life force.” His says his dance is also a response to timelessness in movement:...

    • 9 Da Vinci Marie-Gabrielle Rotie in London (2002) Susanne Linke in Tokyo (1990)
      (pp. 139-148)

      “Woman is female to the extent that she feels herself as such,” says Simone de Beauvoir in her 1949 publicationThe Second Sex. De Beauvoir does not believe the feminine is an unchanging essence.¹ In contrast to this view is Camille Paglia’sSexual Personae, published in 1990, which stresses sexual stereotypes. Is sexual freedom and gender liberation a modern delusion, as she asserts? Has feminism “exceeded its proper mission of seeking political equality for women and ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate,” as Paglia also believes?²

      There is a line in dance history on...

    • 10 The Cosmos in Every Corner Takenouchi Atsushi in Broellin (2003)
      (pp. 149-154)

      Takenouchi Atsushi has been working on his ownJinen Butoh(Dance with Nature) since 1986. “Everything is already dancing,” he told me in an interview in 2003. “I simply find the dance that is already happening.”Jinenis a Japanese word that points to our cosmic connections, as Takenouchi’s work reflects. He studied what he calls “the spirit of the universe” under Ohno Kazuo and Ohno Yoshito. He leads butoh workshops in Europe and Asia and dances outdoors in various environments, both natural and man-made, in every corner of Japan and in Thailand, Europe, and North and South America. He...

    • 11 Risky Plastic Yoshioka Yumiko at Schloss Broellin (2003)
      (pp. 155-160)

      “Yoshioka Yumiko is a shaman for our time,” says Masayuki Fujikawa, a lighting designer from Tokyo who collaborates with Yoshioka and knows her work well. “She glows with the sparks that scream when sky and earth meet in her empty body. She embodies the present moment, a gift from heaven.”

      Yoshioka is shown on the cover of this book. She is a dancer, choreographer, and international butoh teacher who was born in Tokyo and has been living in Germany since 1988. She cofounded the art collective TEN PEN CHii in 1995, now residing in Schloss Broellin, a historic castle in...

    • 12 Fine Bone China Frances Barbe in London (2004)
      (pp. 161-166)

      Frances Barbe, an Australian dancer living in London, enters the space of her danceFine Bone China(2004) with her white cup lightly clattering in its saucer as she walks. Paintings of colonial women inspire this dance as well as Barbe’s own experience of the dualisms of white Australia, she told me in an interview. This dance has obvious historical veneer, but its style is contemporary, notwithstanding the dress and the cup. Constricted clothing and good behavior drive the inner forces of the dancer as she metamorphoses through several states.

      Barbe has performed this work in various environments, including the...

    • 13 Moving MA Endo Tadashi in London (2005)
      (pp. 167-171)

      Suzuki Daisetz inZen and Japanese Culturesays that Zen prizes art over the regulations of morality. I don’t think this means that Zen is amoral, just that it looks to art for inspiration and not toward ethics. Of Zen’s deep connection to art, Suzuki goes further. He says it has been a favorite “trick” of Japanese artists to show beauty in the form of imperfection or ugliness. And when this beauty includes a sense of antiquity or uncouth gestures, “we have then a glimpse ofsabi, so prized by Japanese connoisseurs.”¹ We sometimes see this aesthetic in butoh. At...

    • 14 Weak with Spirit Gurus in Yokohama, Tokyo, and India (2006)
      (pp. 172-182)

      It is July 2, 2006, and my sixty-seventh birthday. I have just returned from Japan where I spent June 14 in Yokohama with legendary father-and-son butoh dancers, Ohno Kazuo-sensei and his son Ohno Yoshito. (In Japan, the surname comes first, andsenseimeans “teacher.”) Sensei will be one hundred years old in October, and Yoshito at sixty-eight is one year older than I. So he is my big brother, he says. I had another idea and asked him to marry me. He promised! On the next day, I visited my Japanese mother and mentor, Matsumoto Chiyoesensei in Tokyo. These visits...

    • 15 Waking Woman Lani Weissbach in Chicago (2006)
      (pp. 183-186)

      Imagine that your fears are mirrored back to you and ricochet out toward the world or, in the case of theater, toward the audience, and you will grasp the zero point of Lani Weissbach’s dance. InWaking Woman/Messy Beauty, she wrestles with fear and obsession: This is what comes to me now in the aftermath of her Chicago performance at Links Hall on March 18, 2006.Messy Beautyprovides a vision of depth psychology in which purity vies with reality in bold imagination. The woman in this dance is a doll, or maybe two kinds of dolls, through which we...

    • 16 Torn Robert Bingham in New York (2006)
      (pp. 187-190)

      Tornis a work for Robert Bingham choreographed by Lani Fand Weissbach, whose work we just visited in the previous essay.Tornhas been performed in several venues in New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Here we take three perspectives on the dance: that of the choreographer, that of the dancer, and that of the writer as witness.

      Weissbach tells me that her interest in creating this dance is to explore the feeling states of heartbreak and desire. As a butoh choreographer, she finds it fascinating to observe what happens to the body when an image or a feeling inhabits...

    • 17 Butoh Ritual Mexicano Diego Piñón in Mexico and Chicago (2006)
      (pp. 191-195)

      Diego Piñón was born in Mexico City in 1957. He comes from the Purepecha culture, now identified with the Tarascan Indians, and was exposed as a child to their primal dances. The Purepecha resisted Spanish culture, even retaining their own language. When I interviewed him in March 2006 in Chicago, Piñón told me that he doesn’t remember a time when he did not dance. He began his formal study of dance and somatic modalities in 1975 with Mexican teachers of a form called Energetic Movement. In 1979, he completed studies in the social sciences and began dancing at the Centro...

    • 18 Mourning the Earth Eiko and Koma with Leng Tan in New York (2007)
      (pp. 196-200)

      Foreshortened in perspective, two dancers lie on a leaf-strewn stage, feet facing to the back and heads facing us. Their legs and hips are covered with black fur, and their bare chests and faces are powdered white. Fragrant branches lie on the floor in front of the stage, and the stage itself is covered with leaves and dark earth. In the audience, we wait: lights to half—to dark—silence. The pianist, Margaret Leng Tan, is barely visible in the darkness as she begins to pluck the strings, playing prepared piano with impediments placed on the strings, as John Cage...

    • 19 Quick Silver Murobushi Ko in New York (2007)
      (pp. 201-204)

      Murobushi Ko trained and performed with butoh’s creator Hijikata Tatsumi and was a founding member of the long-running Dairakudakan butoh company. Now Murobushi leads the Edge Company from his base in Japan and tours internationally. He performed the U.S. premiere of his soloQuick Silverat the Theater for the New City in New York on November 9, 2007.

      The theatrical acuity of this work is rare, a kind of butoh rendition of theater of the absurd. InQuick Silver, Murobushi gives expression to the anguish and isolation of the individual with a consciousness that can only be described as...

    • 20 Daemon of the Riverbank Kei Takei in Tokyo (2008)
      (pp. 205-210)

      Kei Takei lived in New York and performed throughout America for many years. Now she lives in Tokyo and continues to perform internationally. In this essay, I use her familiar stage name, first name first, and depart from the common reverse order, family name first, used in Japan.

      It is September 21, 2008, and the premiere ofDancing Fairy of Five Leaves—Metamorphosis of Okuniat the International Performing Arts venue. In this historic concert, six women perform different styles of dance in honor of Izumo no Okuni, female founder of the original Kabuki. We wait for it to begin...


    • 21 Ursprung Hijikata Tatsumi, Ohno Kazuo, and Ohno Yoshito
      (pp. 213-217)

      Ursprungis German, that favorite word of Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics. It means “origin” in the sense of a leap, an auspicious beginning that springs up as from a foot or from a spring of water. Anursprungis not just any beginning; it is a genuine beginning, a first cause, just as we know that first causes and origins are the subjects of metaphysics. We also know that origin signifies belonging as well as beginning: Your origin is the place you come from, your tribal identity, and your roots. As we approach completion here in part 3, we loop toward...

    • 22 Kuu (Emptiness) Ohno Yoshito and the Patience of Not Starting
      (pp. 218-226)

      It is October 27, 2007, and Ohno Kazuo’s birthday. He is 101. Ohno Yoshito, his son, stands like a statue with his head bowed and his back to the audience as we enter and take our seats for the premier of his workKuu(Emptiness) at the CAVE New York Butoh Festival.¹ Ohno is framed by a creamy white stage, and his suit is the same color, his shaved head lightly powdered to complete the white-on-white stage painting. As the house lights dim to half, Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ pieceToccata and Fugue in D Minor, suddenly floods the house...

  8. Biographies of Dancers
    (pp. 227-236)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 237-246)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-252)
  11. Index
    (pp. 253-264)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-268)