Two extreme to be avoided
There seems to be two extremes to be avoided in butoh. And similar cases are often seen in other disciplines. One is to think that butoh is just a free dance and move however one feels like to, without any technique or method, without deeply investigating and trying to understand some universal principles from the work of the founders. This is often seen among the followers of Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of butoh. Yes, he himself often said things like “The more techniques are applied, the more they push aside what is essential. We are not living and dying relying on techniques! Therefore dance with soul!!” I find it so true but in the same time if we just literally follow it, we most probably end up not in the real freedom, but just repeating the habitual patterns of the movement. We shall be aware that Kazuo Ohno himself was actually a highly well trained dancer with great techniques. Even before he started dancing his body was well trained as a sprint runner and gymnastic teacher, and afterwards he trained himself in modern dance and German expressionist dance with the best teachers in Japan of his time. And in his dance, besides his trained body as a dancer, there are certain crucial essential points that must be seized such as relationship and awareness of the space, touch of the air, subtle awareness of the body, use of different body parts such as chin, eyes, chest, and so on, even if he did not convey them as an organized method.
In Japanese there is a word “守破離“(Shu-Ha-Ri) that indicates the stages of learning to master any disciplines such as tea ceremony or martial art. This article does not intend to investigate deeply about this very profound concept, but to have a look briefly, 守(Shu) in this context means “to obey” or “to follow” the basic forms and techniques taught by the teacher, 破(Ha) is “to break” that forms or style, and 離(Ri) is “to departure” or “to transcend” and to go beyond what we established in 守(Shu) and 破(Ha) and to reach authentic freedom. Kazuo Ohno's work cannot be understood only in the framework of Japanese traditional culture, but here, the concept of ShuHaRi is something universal and explains very well and draw our attention to the necessary process when we approach to butoh.
This applies also in the case of Tatsumi Hijkata, another founder of butoh, and we can clearly see in his dance that he was well trained in classical ballet as well as other disciplines of dance, that gives sense of objectivity instead of rawness even when he is doing grotesque crazy stuff that apparently has nothing to do with classic or modern dances. We tend to be amazed and attracted by his method of embodying rich images, but it is crucial to train the body itself before venturing into such imaginary works. His work is often described as anti classic ballet or anti modern dance, and at times he himself said in an interview “there is no need for butoh dancers to train classic ballet” but I have heard that he actually continued to practice bar lessons of classic ballet in the midnight and his student such as Yukio Waguri testifies that Hijikata was also teaching bar lessons to his students. We often see cases that butoh is understood and practiced solely as personal inner journey without having objective point of view as performing art to be presented for public. In such cases, dancers might be experiencing something interesting and meaningful for him/herself but personal experiences must be sublimated as performing art to be shared with others. For that, to prepare the body itself with some basic principles is essential.
Furthermore, the similar issue might be often seen in other disciplines. Once we were talking with Susanne Linke, one of the major innovators of German Tanztheater, together with Pina Bausch, and she was telling us how much current young dancers miss basic preparation before venturing into improvisation. Or in some other branch of the contemporary dance there has been strong criticism against the mere showing off of trained classic and modern dance techniques, which I find is very valid criticism. But as response to it, we often see the total negation of techniques and mere conceptual intelligence of the choreographers playing around on the stage. That might have succeeded to throw stones against conventional technical dances and to deconstruct them, but after deconstructions, what comes out? Going beyond the genre of butoh or contemporary dance, what is essential is authentic method and techniques that can prepare the body by installing basic principles, and then further that enables us to go beyond the mere showing off of techniques but rather that will lead us to real freedom and let deep reality of existence be revealed on the stage. The method and techniques that does not cover the essence but rather help to unveil it.
Another side of extreme is often found among the followers of Tatsumi Hijikata. It is to blindly follow his idea and method only with admiration and without having critic point of view. Unfortunately or fortunately I have never met Tatsumi Hijikata in person, and whenever I asked people of the first generation of butoh “what kind of man was Tatsumi Hijikata?”, many of their eyes shone brightly. During the years when we were at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, many interesting conversation took place not only in the studio but in the dining room in the house next to the studio while Yoshito-sensei, the son of Kazuo Ohno was cooking. Once I asked such question to Mrs. Etsuko, the wife of Yoshito-sensei, she said “Oh, he was such a sexy man!!” I have heard the same expression from Mitsuyo Uesugi, the close disciple of Kazuo Ohno, when I asked the same question. Certainly he was one of the most charismatic artist of his time, and so many people who came in contact with him were so shocked and admired him deeply. It is indeed very crucial and valuable to investigate and understand his ideas and methods, and there is tremendous rich resources in his work to be applied for our creations in any disciplines of our time, not only in butoh. But in the same time it is very essential to bring creative sense of critical point of view. Sometimes we see that Tatsumi Hijikata is becoming the final destination for some dancers and teachers, ardently and blindly following his work... But the most important questions must be not only “what is butoh?” or “what is the idea and method of Tatsumi Hijikata?” but rather “what is the reality of life and death?”, “ what is the reality of existence?” “what is this body and mind?”, “who am I?”, “does this method help to discover and reveal such questions, and to let it manifest as artistic works?” Such is the the fundamental questions lying underneath the works of the founders. If we don't pursuit such fundamental questions by ourself instead of only following the founders, there is no future of butoh and also paradoxically we will probably never understand butoh in that way neither. Butoh is ultimately self-discovery and artistic expression of it, and the destination is not “butoh” or “Tatsumi Hijikata” but the depth of our own body and mind.
Thus, just dancing however we feel without preparing our body carefully and investigating the essential principles of the works of the founders or naively following what founders did without creative sense of critics, neither of them will probably not take us to meaningful creations. And here comes very important practical question: what can be our 守(Shu)? What can be the basic practice and method, not only particularly as followers of butoh but rather as dancers, artists and any individuals of our time and future who seek for profound discoveries and creations? In case of tea ceremony or martial arts, as well as classic ballet and so on, there are already very organized systematic forms and method to follow that will step by step lead the practitioners to accomplish each disciplines in some certain level, and then the process of 破(Ha) and 離(Ri) is in the hand of each. Butoh founders did not leave such organized method, and it is our works to create such. Tatsumi Hijikata once said “Isn't there someone who organize the method?” If only fragments of their words, ideas, and memories of their great dance remains, butoh will be just an old heritage of the past and decay without releasing its powerful creative potential to now and future.