When I first time visited Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, I had never seen any butoh performances and had completely no idea of butoh. With some excitement and uneasiness mixed together, I arrived at the studio. The first thing I noticed was that there was no mirror in the studio that was quite uncommon of what I had imagined of a dance studio. And one of the very first practice I experienced was to observe the body while slowly walking and raising arms up and down. Our teacher Yoshito Ohno, the son of Kazuo Ohno, later explained that this was a practice that Kazuo Ohno taught him when he started learning dance from his father. And Yoshito-sensei continued to raise a question, “where is the eye of the dancers?” “Where are we looking at?” This corresponds also to the idea of Tatsumi Hijikata. He said “I keep looking within closely while being on the stage. The audiences might be looking at my body, but I am also peering at my dancing body. Therefore in my dance, the relationship with the audience is not like dancers show and the audience look.” At another time, he said “Why don't we put a ladder and descend down to own body? Why don't we pluck and eat our own darkness of the body? But rather people are looking for solutions by going outward” One of the evolution butoh has brought to the performing art is that instead of using body as a tool to express some stories, concepts or ideas, it opened the possibility to use body to express body itself, or rather to reveal it. The fundamental question here is “what is the truth of the body?” To explore such question, we can closely observe our own body, and investigate experientially instead of investigating solely intellectually. In the time of the Renaissance, in the rise of modern science, people started looking at phenomenon directly to explore the truth. With telescope Galileo observed planets, or anatomical study was revived by people such as Andreas Vesalius and subtler observation was done later by development of the microscope and so on. We do the same here, but not as external observation as modern scientists do, but rather introspective approach through our own direct experience.
But to observe the body during the practice of walking as we were taught, there are quite a lot of other details to be developed in that practice and I found it very difficult to look at the body really closely in the subtlest level. On the other hand, if we investigate the method of Tatsumi Hijikata, he gave numerous images to his dancers and asked to embody the images on different part of the body as well as environment around, and thus he tried to sharpen and change the perception of the body and the environment to reveal their reality. These images were given not to just play around inside the head and go into a fantasy trip, but to be in deep connection with the body. But we often lack deep and subtle connection with own body, especially in our modern time when rapid technological developments are driving us to be less and less connected with physical reality. Or for some cases, because of traumatic experiences there are people who is deeply cutting off the connection with their body. In such situations, if we start working with images from the beginning, there are great possibility that images do not help to explore the reality of the body, but rather just lead to illusions. Therefore we find it very crucial first to re-establish deep and subtle connection with the body before venturing into practices engaging numerous images. If we are able to be aware of subtle changes in the body, then after when different images or sounds or actual touch of different materials are given, the body will be ready to embody any kind of informations that come in contact. For these reasons, we are developing a practice called Body Scanning as one of the very first basic practice.
What we do is to observe the body by using several movement patterns or at times freely without patterns, at times part by part and at times all parts simultaneously, starting from gross level and slowly moving to the subtler level. Starting from observing anatomical level of bones or muscles, and moving to subtler level such as water elements in the body, and even subtler to nerves, and subtler to the tiniest particles of the body, energy in the body... And as we go subtler and subtler, deeper and deeper layers of the mind start unfolding, and different sensations, images, memories, feelings, emotions start manifesting by itself spontaneously. Something pleasant and unpleasant, fear and delight, joy and sallow... By observing the body introspectively and experientially, deep connection between body and mind will be naturally unveiled, and it will be clear that the body is not just collection of chemical substances, but rather storing enormous histories. And it will be more and more clear that the body is not a solid and fixed entity but rather in constant change in a great rapidity.
Often times butoh dancers are moving very slowly, but why? One of Yoshito-sensei's answer was that “because we are trying to touch the moon” It is the same idea here. Whether we are trying to touch something extremely macrocosmic or extremely microcosmic, automatically the movement becomes very slow. The slowness itself is not the purpose. It is about the extreme subtlety, and there are rapid subtle internal movements although dancers might be moving very slowly externally. This subtlety is the key to explore the deeper layer of body and mind. And as we surrender to subtler level of the body, we will experience that body is moving by itself without deliberately moving the bones and muscles. We generally habitually believe that this body is our own possessions, but strangely, lungs are moving by themselves and breath is coming and going by itself, hurt is pumping by itself, blood flowing by itself, deeper layer of the involuntary muscles keep moving by itself... cells are created and destroyed by itself, particles are moving by itself, created and destroyed by itself.... The body exist here as natural phenomenon.
As we continue to go deeper and subtler, our conventional perception of the body start changing, and it will start dissolving the solid idea and image of ourself. For dancers as well as everyone, strong sense of identity is very much based on our image and perception of the body. And that habitual fixed image and perception keep ourself bound in cage in our dance as well as in our life in total. Learning different style of dance can often also lead us to develop some new cage of movement pattern instead of freeing us. Or at times some dance practices might even enhance the rejection to our own body that does not exactly meet with the pattern that the certain style is striving to create. In our everyday life, if we look at the new-born baby, his/her movement is so much free compared with that of the grown. The baby move the body not being habituated by culture or educations, but purely to explore the body itself. They do not yet have strong concept of what hands are, what feet are, and in fact such are all our mental constructs. When we peer at the body in very subtle level, billions of trillions of particles moving, and such thing as “hand” or “feet” or “head” does not actually exist, but only designated on trillions of particles. And even going subtler, we will start loosening the sense of solid body with distinct border. What is discussed here seems to be in accordance with the discoveries of modern physics, and not just personal experiences. Thus the concept of the body start being deconstructed, like the dolls of Hans Bellmer or like the painting of Henri Michaux. In fact, Hijikata was often using the images of these artists, and many of the images he was giving to his dancers seem to have such aim of dissolving conventional perception of solid body. Some of the example of images he often used is such as: body and environment around fulfilled by pollen of flower or dandelion fluff, body made of ash, tiny insects everywhere on the body and also coming from outside to inside and from inside to outside, etc. What is common to these images is that all are made of very tiny parts, and importantly he always move the image from within to the environment around and thus try to expand the awareness to the space around, not only within the body. But for the reasons discussed in this article and another article “Tibetan Dance Cham and Butoh“, we would propose first to work on Body Scanning method.
And finally, the most important key for the performing art, and that naturally means also for our daily life, is the awareness that is observing all these phenomena of the body and mind as if from the far, as if looking ourself from the audience while we are on the stage. Tatsumi Hijikata called it bird's eye (俯瞰の眼) or the founder of Japanese Noh Theatre, Zeami called it distant view (離見ri-ken). This presence of the awareness that is observing own body and mind is the most important key to transform the personal experience into universal poetry on the stage. While we are experiencing something very deep and intensive, deeply experiencing own body, feelings, emotions, or memories, in the same time we shall keep ourself clear and sober without being drown in what is happening on the stage, without identifying ourself with this body and mind. If there is not this distant view, there is a risk that the performance becomes merely personal journey not to be shared with the public audience. The performance is at the end not about the performer him/herself, but rather the performer shall be an identity-less mirror for the audiences to allow them to look into themselves. For that we must open a space where audience can come in. And the nature of this awareness is deeply connected with the presence of the space that is one of the most important concept in Japanese art, such as Noh theatre, flower arrangement, paintings, tea ceremony, and also in butoh. Further discussion will follow on this important topic.