Butoh? Oh that old stuff with grotesque movement and painted white body? Such is quite common opinion among general contemporary dance scene. Apparently there is a big wall between contemporary dance and butoh. But when we read the descriptions of the work of contemporary dancers, they often seem to be investigating very similar themes as ideas but often time still missing actual method to realize the vision in the experiential level. Or when we had some opportunity to meet and talk with some of the most prominent contemporary dancers or theater directors such as Carolyn Carlson, Susanne Linke, Ismael Ivo, Eugenio Barba, etc. we felt their deep respect towards two founders of butoh, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. It is also a famous story how much Pina Bausch admired Kazuo Ohno. We ourself left Japan, feeling the deadlock of butoh scene, wishing to place ourself in the wider context of art, and avoided to see any butoh works for a while, looking for other inspirations, and when we saw again the video of Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata after years we were in fact so astonished again... Some aspects of Butoh might belong to the personal background of the founders and not have reality for our very own life. It is also very true that after the works of the founders and their death, it has been reduced to merely a style and something essentially evolutional is not coming out of it. Yet there is some universal jewel in the works of the founders that can contribute to the creation of our contemporary and future art. What must be done is to dive in the mud of butoh and take this universal jewel out and polish it further.
What is this universal jewel of butoh then? The most fundamental question lying under the works of the founders is the question of existence “who am I?”, “what is the nature of body and mind?” “where do we come from and where are we going?” And they were approaching such fundamental question not only conceptually and intellectually but deeply experientially with whole body and mind. In the case of Kazuo Ohno, what appeared in his dance was not only his personal memory, image, or sentiment, but millions of years of the history of existence contained within each of us emerged through him. He often emphasized that our each existence is not standing alone on its own but is sustained by countless benefit from the others including who has already passed away and countless chains of life and death. Furthermore he was melting the boarder between the reality and dream, questioning that our existence and the whole “reality” might be actually not much different than the world of dreaml. In the case of Tatsumi Hijikata, he actually clearly said that the dance is a tool for a quest of life. In some certain period he called his dance “Ankokubutoh” (dance of darkness), and in his dance he revealed distortions within ourself that we look away in our daily life, that lies under the surface of body and mind of all of us, and he confronted the audience with such reality and transformed it as a poetry. The reality of death or sickness are latent within all existence, and he represented such fate of all and sublimated it as beauty. And another core theme of his work is an attempt to deconstruct unified solid self-identity as an individual, as man/woman, as human being, as sentient being, and he expanded our concept of existence. The works of the both founders are very different from each other in many aspects, but we can still find a common essence that their movement and state of body and mind was in touch with profoundly deep and subtle layers that is beyond this daily state, and revealed some hidden reality within.
This question of existence is the most fundamental theme that we are trying to pursuit through art, and to investigate the actual method of the founders to see how they were experientially digging their body and mind through their art practices. In the same time, it is crucially important to bring more critical eyes to the works of founders and evolve it further instead of blindly following and naively admiring them. Actually for Kazuo Ohno, he did not leave any organized method, and the way he dived deeply into his body and mind was through very personal approach, investigating the dream he had seen, scribbling down his thoughts and images, pondering and pondering, and diving deeply within through improvisation dance... such whole process and contents of the images are very personal process and not easy to be directly applied to our each practices and creations. Much work must be done to investigate and evolve the method of how we could reach such deep layer of body and mind in our own creations. In the case of Tatsumi Hijikata he did create very concrete method that he applied for his dancers. But we must shed critical light on his idea as well as his method. First of all it is not certain how Tatsumi Hijikata himself explored his body and mind besides the method he gave to his dancers. So what he was applying for himself might differ from such methods. And the method he gave to his dancers had clear purpose of creating choreographed performance pieces, but it is questionable how much it had direct profound effect to discover own inner reality, and further, how such method gave positive influence to everyday life out of the stage is questionable. His idea and method of deconstruction of self-identity could lead practitioners to mental derangement in everyday life even if it could contribute for creating interesting performance. At the end everyday life is more important than art, isn't it? Especially when such method using power of imagination and replacing our ordinary self image with other images is applied to someone who has not established very healthy sense of identity, it can be really hazardous, and we have actually seen such cases. (further discussions on the article “Tibetan Dance Cham and Butoh” and “Darkness in art and butoh”) Before we deconstruct self-identity, we do need to establish a very stable and healthy sense of identity that is often lacking in our modern time. And the lack of self-identity must be experienced in a very sharply awakened state instead of the state of derangement and confusion like in the case of schizophrenia. Such distinction is obvious and yet seems to be very important to be mentioned.
At the end, the most important is not preservation of butoh itself but emergence of art practice that can reveal the hidden deepest truth within each of us and contribute to the deeper understanding of ourself and all phenomena. If Tatsumi Hijikata is looking us from somewhere, he would probably make fun of us and say “Are you guys still doing butoh?”. We shall endeavor further to explore deeper reality within ourself and this deeper understanding of ourself will automatically lead us to the deeper understanding of selflessness. In this time of tremendous tension and conflicts between countries, religions, individuals or within each of ourselves, we believe this “selflessness” is the crucial keyword that shall be investigated deeply, that will lead us to compassionate attitude toward others and the whole world instead of mental derangement.