Embracing Avant-Garde Dance at the Kyoto Butoh-Kan

I had never experienced a butoh performance before visiting the Kyoto Butoh-Kan this summer, nor had I previously walked down the unassuming street on which the entrance is located, just north of the intersection of Koromonotana and Sanjo Streets in downtown Kyoto. This is just a short walk from Karasuma Oike Stations, along both of the Kyoto subway lines, or a slightly longer walk from the Hankyu Line. The gated entrance is tucked among other buildings on the street, but is distinguishable by its traditional appearance and posters displayed.
I approached after nightfall for the second evening performance, and two women who had just been audience to the first were chatting excitedly in front. After shyly eavesdropping for a couple of minutes, I began to chat with them. One told me that she is a dancer in the United States and had only been in Kyoto for the past couple of weeks on vacation, but that this show was undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of her stay. “You’re in for a huge treat,” she said.
Art Complex opened the Butoh-kan in July 2016 as the first theater in Japan to be exclusively dedicated to the art form of Butoh, an avant-garde dance style originated in the 1950’s by Tatsumi Hijikata of Japan’s northeastern region. The Butoh of today has evolved to encompass many styles and means of expression, but is thought to be based on Hijikata’s philosophical legacy, which encompassed the dynamics of both form and spirituality. The location of the Butoh-Kan itself is unique: a “kura”, or earthenware storehouse, that was built in 1862 (the latter half of the Edo Period). Those who attend the performance can not only experience the dancing itself, but also experience this architectural piece of history with their five senses.


©︎Yuji Kohara

     The storehouse has room for only eight guests at a time, providing an extremely intimate atmosphere. After removing one’s shoes and placing them on a shelf outside the door, the audience members are ushered up a wooden ramp, into a room with woven mats underfoot, to sit on low stools with cushions around the perimeter. I wasn’t sure if this was to be the performance place or if it was just a waiting room, as there was a steep ladder to the loft above. The lighting, even at this time, was soft, and the atmosphere still and quiet. I noticed that all of the other guests were of foreign backgrounds, except for one Japanese male who accompanied his foreign girlfriend, and wondered how familiar the Japanese themselves are with Butoh.

After everyone arrived and the show was to begin, the lights were dimmed down considerably to a soft glow. A high-pitched, single-toned bell could be heard ringing at intervals, and with lengthy pauses in between, continued several times before Miwako Inagaki came into view as she approached the doorway with slow, careful steps, headed toward us. A loose, white linen was draped on her body. Expressionless. Otherworldly. Stoically. After she had entered the room completely, the door was slid shut. This was a somewhat jolting sound which subsequently separated us from the sounds outside, making the room much quieter and contained us in this other world.

With one hand stretched out, she continued to ring bell at intervals, within very close proximity to us. Coming right up to us, however, her eyes were distant and she didn’t seem to see us. Through the ringing of the bell and her distance of emotion, I felt as if the sound of the bell was emanating from a place deep within myself. A soft, blue light in the corner of the room highlighted the contours of Inagaki’s features. The faint ding of a smaller bell or castanet could be heard from another corner. Eventually, Inagaki slid to the floor and amazingly remained in the same position for the length of the performance.

It was at that point that Masami Yurabe, swathed in very light black and orange fabric, began his dramatic, slow descent down the very steep ladder from the second floor loft, with little motion in his body besides his legs. He also appeared entranced, with the same distant look. His completely shaved head and painted on white makeup, with red paint on the outer corners of his eyes, added to the mysterious effect.

©︎ Oliver Halsman Rosenberg

     Throughout the entire non-verbal performance, Yurabe delved into a range of emotions, fluctuating between what I interpreted as the embodiment of ecstasy, infancy, horror and confusion, and once again revisiting the cycle of ecstasy, horror, and confusion. Grabbing, clawing, swirling, breathing, shrinking. In such a small, intimate space, it seemed as if I was being invited to view, up close, the entire range of human emotions embodied in this particular dance, and at times felt that I was gaining such a close look into his being, that I actually became slightly embarrassed for “having permission” to witness a performance so pure and personal.

The lighting made clever use of the space from several angles. From the corners, shining through the slightly parted floorboards above, casting shadows upon the dancer below, which I imagined was the mimicking of sunlight. Flowing water was projected onto the wall. The projecting of Yurabe’s shadow was carried out with interesting and effective timing. Having read an explanation passed out to the audience members before the show began, I understood that this dance was likened to the cycle of a flower. Based on that, I found myself trying to interpret the meanings expressed throughout the performance.

By the end, sweat was gleaming on Yurabe’s head as he fell backward onto the floor in an expression of (what I assumed to be) death. At this point, Inagaki stood from her place and slowly walked forward to where he was laid silently. It was if she had brought him (or his awareness) into existence with the sound of the solo bell at the beginning of the performance, and now she slowly carried a flower toward him, in which appeared to be an expression of offering. The lights dimmed completely, signaling the end of the performance, after which Yurabe rose and presented the flower to one of the audience members. The audience members were then welcomed take one of the flowers from the vases along the walkway as they departed. Nice, generous touch.

What stayed with me, as my own personal interpretation, was the dichotomy of darkness vs. vitality, always returning back to end each other, influencing and affecting each other. Yin and Yang. In the life cycle, we can not appreciate the light without being awakened from a state of darkness, and we cannot recognize the darkness without having once been in the light. This type of powerful non-verbal dance will undoubtedly affect different people in different ways, however, which is one of the true beauties of this performance.

What is in Yurabe’s mind when he performs, and how did he become interested in this type of dancing in the first place? I had the wonderful opportunity to revisit the Butoh-kan on a subsequent day and interview him for Kyoto Faces.


When did you first see Butoh and think that you wanted to try dancing?

When I was attending university around the age of twenty, I was in Tokyo. I saw a Butoh performance by a group based in Kyoto, located about an hour beyond Mount Kurama called “Obosen”, and for some reason I decided I wanted to join their group. So, I joined, my head was shaved, white makeup was painted on me, I climbed onto trees and had my photo taken. It was if I had suddenly entered a completely different world. But it was an experiment for me. It was just around the time when I was wondering which path my life was going to take, and I had just jumped into this new experience. I was with that group for about three-and-a-half years. And after I left that group, I had the opportunity to interact with many different people in the dance world.

Before you began Butoh, had you been a dancer?

No, no. Not at all.

You just mentioned shaving your head when you entered the group, and then the wearing of white clothes…. Is that common for all Butoh dancers?

No…no. There’s no set rule for that. One could say, however, that it is a kind of pattern. The white makeup and shaved head create a demarcation in feeling between this and one’s everyday feelings. The white makeup has the capacity to transform one’s individuality, or the body. For example, a male dancer can take on more feminine traits, or a dancer can take on more animalistic characteristics. The white makeup allows the dancer to become many different things if he or she wishes. The transformation process is easier. This is why the white makeup is applied, but there is definitely Butoh in which this technique is not used. It’s just one aspect of this performance genre. And this is how I was raised as a Butoh dancer.

I’ve heard that the original Butoh was subsequently split into two schools with somewhat different philosophies. Which School would you say your dancing style follows?

I would say there are probably more than two. There are many different ways of thinking. Tatsumi Hijikata’s work was definitely central to the art form, but his methods were not the only kind of Butoh. There were many people, and many kinds of productions. The philosophical aspects of the dance are highly developed, but the idea of the dance moving the body is a central point, and there are many people involved. And not only dancers, but fine artists and actors have also been involved in Butoh’s evolution. There are many styles. But Hijikata was a very important person. His image as a representation of Butoh became too strong, but actually there are many styles and many ways of dancing Butoh.

Who would you consider as your model?

I would say that I don’t have any specific model. I’ve been influenced by many. I think I’ve been influenced by the Butoh performers of many years ago. My focus is on moving my body. Many Butoh dancers are not only influenced by the dance style itself, but also by acting, and completely different genres as well. Butoh is something that one searches for on their own. It’s not really a specific category. One seeks it out.

So, for you, what is “Butoh”?

Well, to give some kind of definitive explanation, it would be to make the body dance. To use the body as a tool to express something beautiful. To explore ways in which the body is able to express things. The body itself holds many different energies which are consistently in transformation, as well as mysterious capabilities. Likewise, the body is able to express magnificent scenery. This is what I personally hope to express with my dancing.


©︎Tsutomu Yoshimura

In your performance I was able to watch, I read that you were dancing to express a flower. Can you explain more in detail about your vision of that performance?

It’s not just the flower, but all living things are born and then eventually die. Of course, when life is at it’s most vibrant, when there is so much energy, that could be seen as a kind of dance. But when the body becomes sick and dies, that is also one aspect of our being. Both of those aspects are part of our body’s image. That life force can be likened to a flower. Regarding the theme of the performance “Underworld Flower”, the concept of sleeping is written about in the explanation, but in that case sleeping is like the unconscious state. We’re in a deep sleep and then awaken. When awakening from that deep sleep state, from that state of unconsciousness, we feel very refreshed. And we gain energy from that sleeping, unconscious state. We keep recharging from that deep state, and the performance suggests that, as a result of this energy, we awake from this space every time like a flower.

At the beginning of the performance, many sounds can be heard, like a bell. Is there a specific meaning behind that?

The bell can been seen as an invitation to another place, or to enter into that one sound itself. Instead of a melody, one allows himself to slide deeply into that one simple tone. The heart connects with the sound of a bell.

Are there any major differences between the Butoh of the present and that of the past?

It’s hard to discern exactly when Butoh began as an art form, but it’s generally accepted that it began after the war, nearly sixty years ago. I think there must have been many changes during that time. One thing for sure is that in the old days, one was required to enter a specific group to be able to dance. Not only that, but once one entered a group, there were strictly prohibited from dancing with another. At that time there were no videos and no workshops, so one studied with their group, and the skills were transmitted from teacher to student, from person to person. But this did not apply only to Butoh, but also to the world of dance in general. Relationships were extremely important in this sense. But since that time, it has become much more open. These days, it is not regimented that one must belong to a specific group or one may only work individually. There are many collaborations and discussions taking place. I’ve been involved in many ways. Barriers have fallen away. That’s why there is not one strict definition of Butoh.

Is there anything else you would like to mention about Butoh?

Regarding the body itself, there are always comparisons being made, aren’t there? This person is a good dancer, this individual is pretty. The body is continuously being compared. But there are things which override such comparisons. Things which show the intrinsic beauty of the body itself. I have the feeling that this is something everyone is searching for. The inner richness of the body. For example, in the case of one who is handicapped, it wouldn’t be a matter of considering whether something is possible or not, but bringing out the essence of the body’s richness. Something that is always there. In this modern age, we are always living with the reality of comparison, which causes frustration among everyone, which I believe also includes some dancers. Even if they practice hard, they still feel bound in some way. But there must be some other way of thinking about all of this. I think that Butoh has elements which address this problem. Anyone can be a Butoh dancer. There are no limitations to partake in the dance form due to one’s abilities. But of course, there are limitations to the body in that we are mortal beings. It all involves exploring the objectivity of the body more deeply. I think this is very important. Within these realities, how can we express ourselves through the body?

What are you feeling and thinking while you’re dancing? Is is more spiritual for you, or are you focusing specifically on the mechanics of the dance itself?

Of course, I’m thinking concretely. It’s not a spiritual experience for me. I’m focusing on the feeling in my body, how to express the change in emotion. I’m thinking specifically about those things while I’m dancing.

What’s your “Kyoto #1”, and what do you do when you’re not at Butoh-kan?

I visit lots of temples, and have seen many places. It’s hard to think of just one. I like being right here at the Butoh-kan the best. I really feel relaxed and relieved when I come here. Being here is like a meditation for me. I’ve been dancing here since February 2017, and I really feel that I’ve gotten used to and blended into this place.

I was always in Kyoto before dancing at Butoh-kan. I have my own studio space in Nishijin where I teach. In that space, there is also a residence area for handicapped individuals and a calm, free practice space, “ALSD”, which is now in its ninth year. This space was named for my friend who I take care of and has ALS, for who the space was originally created, and “D” can represent “dance”, “document” or the Japanese word “doukyo (living together)”. While I have taught dance to these individuals before when there is an interest, it’s not that kind of space. Basically, my friend provides a space for others with ALS who are experiencing more and more difficulties with their movement.

Yurabe-San, thank you for your very informative answers and insight into the art of Butoh!

Masami Yurabe’s performance “Underworld Flower” is held every Tuesday at 6pm and 8pm. Another performance (“Hisoku“) by female world-renowned Butoh artist Ima Tenko is held every Thursday at 6:00pm and 8:00pm. Tickets for both performances cost 3,800 JPY and there is a 800 JPY discount for students. Each performance is approximately 50 minutes in length. Only eight seats are available for each performance.

Reservations can be made by visiting http://www.butohkan.jp/index.html#ticket
E-mail inquiries can be sent to info@butohkan.jp




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