[-empyre-] Questions on Butoh

Sondra Fraleigh eastwest at q.com
Wed Oct 26 07:53:51 EST 2011

Got to think about your questions Johannes? I want to answer them, even as my book goes more deeply into the issues you raise. You mention my book on global alchemy. Actually it is published now through the University of Illinois Press - available on Amazon, BUTOH: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. 

It addresses all of the widening effects you mention. I don't see butoh moving toward the intersection of dance/art/life in the way that Anna Halprin does. I have experienced her work, and admire it, but butoh is quite different. It moves not toward life but into it, and underneath. Remember butoh's preoccupation with death? Hijikata said that when he danced his dead sister "scratched away the darkness inside him." Ohno Kazuo taught classes using the image of "konpaku." This is a very old Buddhist word that would surprise most Japanese, let alone we outsiders. Konpaku is that place "nowhere out there," where the living and the dead mingle in peace, a riverbank of nowhere. Butoh digs down, but not in a Jungian way. Ohno said: "I carry all the dead with me when I dance." I cry whenever I think of this, knowing how many of the war dead that Ohno witnessed in WWII, on both sides. He was a reluctant soldier (a sensitive dancer) for nine years, the last two as a prisoner of war.  He teaches respect for those who give their lives for us, and his message is universal and global, not national. The manner of excavation of the subconscious in butoh is Japanese. If it is meditational, and I think it can be, it brings us into a neutral place where we can be vulnerable. I'm thinking here of Hijikata's pathos in his embodiment of Leprosy. Or alternately, butoh can be wild and untamed, as we also gather through Hijikata. 

I have not turned to Western phenomenology to write about butoh, but to Japanese phenomenology, its translations of course. One finds there that body and spirit are commensurate. Not surprising, as we know that Eastern philosophy doesn't objectify and separate, but sees unity, somewhat like Spinoza, who was persecuted for his philosophy of unity. He said in his Ethics, that the mind was the creation of the body. Very subversive stuff, since he was a contemporary of Descartes. Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist and brain researcher appreciates Spinoza. He would like Japanese Phenomenology too, I think.

Halprin had us draw our hands, then share the drawings in groups. We danced our hands. I loved the experience of dancing my hands. I know she used art and drawing as one means to move students in art/life processes. These were therapeutic, but not surreal, as in butoh. She said she cured her own cancer by discovering it in a drawing she made and dancing what she found there over time. She also did that amazing work in nature and finally turned her dance toward social action - so admirable - but not like butoh. (There is, however,  one photograph of Halprin when she covers her face - very elderly face - in fine pebles. She is caked; very butoh.)

Johannes your other questions: cultural transformation and metamorphosis in a meditational sense or aesthetic. Yes I think all of this. Butoh is not one thing of course, and as it has extended its influence around the globe, it changes of course in relation to culture. Future studies of assimilation will reveal more about this. I say a lot about it in my essays on eighteen butoh artists around the globe. I am more of a witness and participant, and write from this point of view. But I am also an historian and aesthetician, so I have a chapter on the history of butoh, also showing that European Surrealism, one of Hijikata's inspirations, has roots in Japanese Ukiyo-e wood block prints, if you trace this Japanese influence through European art. Was Hijikata borrowing back what had already been borrowed from Japan? 

Someone once asked Hijikata if butoh was a philosophy. He said "no but someday it might be." In my book, I say that butoh is a philosphy, and why. One simply needs to draw the threads of meaning together. The book developed over about 12 years, the dances I cover range from 1973 to 2008. I could be wrong in my interpretations - I know this - and just do my best. History is interpretation. We wouldn't have any if writers and researchers refused to interpret. We are always interpreting the world around us. Existential phenomenology has taught me that. I think of Martin Luther sometimes when I write: "Have faith and sin bravely."

I find a meditational essence in butoh, and I know many teachers bring this into their teaching. Akira Kasai was one of the first to be open about his use of meditation. He and Hijikata were contemporaries. Kasai is a founder of butoh also. He did a theater work at the NYC Butoh Festival - Butoh America - upending the colonial practice of anthropology, that is the penchant of the West to put the East under a microscope. Here was a Japanese man asking Americans to incorporate his butoh as best they could, but he was the choreographer, after all. He was holding the microscope.

So concerning your question about the politics of butoh. I don't think the politics of butoh would flow so directly through contemporary ways of writing and semiotic thinking.  Butohists - or butoh-ka (butoh dancers, and I am one) believe the dance/theater/experience should itself deliver the message. Or "the medium is the message" in the McLuhan sense. I'll just say that I see the politics of butoh as anti-utopian. 

One might think the politics to be anti-Western, but I don't think they are even if Hijikata said: "I don't want a bad check called democracy." He was against production as represented in Western materialism, and was dancing after the war when America was moving into Japan and taking over. I surmise that it wasn't democracy he was railing against, but Western-Style Democracy. Seems our forms of democracy are not too popular around the world at this time, and Hijikata was one of the first to see the mistake of importing a whole political system into another country (after it had been burned to the ground).

But why should you listen to me after all. I'm not Japanese. I believe what I write about butoh could be read as one would read a love story. All my writing about butoh has been a love story. Many Japanese have talked to me about my writing. It is not as they would write, of course. We all have our various perspectives. They appreciate that an outsider has taken an interest. Where we stand makes a difference. That's what makes a world. One of my Japanese friends told me: "You chose us, so we choose you." When I go to Japan, my heart just melts. When I went with my husband first of all, they called me "Mrs. Sondra," so politely. When I went by myself, eleven times, they started to call me Sondra-sensei. I bowed of course, and was thrilled. My Japanese sisters and brothers take off my shoes the minute I enter a room and run to put them in an appropriate slot. We're all learning together, even as we mingle in peace with the dead in konpaku - nowhere out there - and our shoes sit innocently together on the shelf.

Best to all,
On Oct 25, 2011, at 8:29 AM, Johannes Birringer wrote:

> Sondra, thanks for taking us into some graver questions/contexts that may connect Jack's work on embryology,  Elisita's meditations on ontogenetic development, and Jaime's propositions for "amorphous bodies (in his post today).
>>> Sondra writes: 
> Now I wonder, just why do we discard our old people?
> Age is metamorphosis, a word that has come to mean a lot to me, and which now guides my view of the dances I do inspired by butoh. I don't consider myself a butoh dancer or teacher, but I know I wouldn't be dancing or teaching as I do without my experiences and researches into this incredible art. I think of butoh as romantic, which may surprise many, but my view of romance is wide, certainly encompassing the darkness of butoh and Ohno's incredible hats. Also his ability to transform.>>.
> Your very interesting video, partly set in the snow and the Utah deserts, mentions you're working on the book on "global alchemy" and butoh's outward (inward) reach - so you consider it having a widening effect of cultural transformation and also morphosis? in the political sense in which Jaime requests? or in an aesthetic/meditational sense, or that sensibility which Anna Halprin called 'movement towards life'?
> Thanks David for gracefully shifting contexts of your initial post on different theories of creation, which I took seriously...
> and I wondered whether Akram Khan might reply to David, commenting on his research at CERN on the beginnings of the universe, the time before time, and the "re-creation" of the acceleration of particles at the embryonic moment of the universe and the galaxies?
> with regards
> Johannes
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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