It is arguably one of those curious cases where something is “bigger” abroad than at home.
In Japan, Butoh is only for the initiated, even among regular theatregoers, while it enjoys a stronger reputation overseas and is regarded as Japan’s most visually distinct modern dance form. As such, we get Butoh researchers from all over Europe and beyond outnumbering their Japanese counterparts. And the leading Butoh company Sankai Juku is based not in Tokyo but in Paris, and its leader, Ushio Amagatsu, was made Chevalier de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres in 1992 and Commandeur de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres in 2014.
With Butoh’s stature as it is, it might or might not seem strange that there is as yet no national Butoh centre. (There isn’t even a national dance theatre or centre, either.) Perhaps it is also because the companies do a good enough job at “institutionalising” by themselves, such as Dairakudakan’s summer camps in Nagano and its Studio Kochuten studio in west Tokyo.
It is 30 years since Tatsumi Hijikata’s death and now the first specialist Butoh theatre opens this summer in Kyoto. Butoh-kan (Butoh Hall) has its first performance on July 7th, after which it will offer two dances every Thursday. The organisers say it is the first dedicated Butoh theatre of its kind in the world.
Initially announced performances are 45 minutes in length and limited to just audiences of 8 per show (standing only). Needless to say, this must be an intimate venue, which is anyway surely the best way to experience Butoh. The performers are Ima Tenko and Okaeri Shimai, making this a relatively rare female Butoh venture in an increasingly male-dominated scene. It also yet another reason why Kyoto should be considered one of the centres of contemporary Japanese theatre.
Though the actual scale of the space might derail its assertion to be Japan’s (and the world’s) first Butoh theatre, the timing of Butoh-kan’s opening couldn’t be much better.
In 2017, we have the Sapporo International Butoh Festival. Bruce Baird’s book on Hijikata has just come out in paperback. Last month, the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju also put together a Hijikata showcase for its Our Masters series. Curated by former Butoh dancer Pijin Neji, it included a new performance by Neji as well as exhibits and interviews offering a retrospective on Hijikata, and also attempted to link the body art of the Butoh pioneer to contemporary forms of physical spectacle in the public space, such as hate speech demonstrations. In addition, in 2015, a PSi conference explored the relationship between Tohoku, Butoh, Shūji Terayama and contamination.
Butoh-kan has also made a bold promise to “create the world’s most comprehensive” website about Butoh. This is also a timely and valuable project, providing it lives up to its claim.
Archiving is a recurrent dilemma in dance, especially so for Butoh now as we lose the first generation of artists. At the heart of the problem is notation, and whether you accept it is as a viable method of recording dance. As Lizzie Feidelson noted in the spring 2013 issue of n+1, an agreed-upon system of notation might seem to represent a quick fix. As such, dance notation “is passionately pursued by an esoteric niche of dance scholars and former dancers; but the practice is widely dismissed by the dance community as an illegitimate preservation method”. Since dance is the extension of a choreographer’s body into a company of other dancers, “writing down a dance seems like an academic misappropriation”. But can words, descriptions and even diagrams and video footage ever genuinely stand in for the original movement?
Shortly after Merce Cunningham’s 90th birthday, his foundation announced a “Living Legacy Plan” to secure the future of his work. Though Cunningham made notes on his choreography in advance, these were left behind once rehearsals began. Ultimately, there was no score and if another company ever wanted to recreate a Cunningham piece, a dancer from the Cunningham troupe would have to visit to supervise it. Part of the Living Legacy Plan was an online series of “Dance Capsules” to preserve the dance works with everything needed (programmes, footage, interviews, lighting plots, set designs, etc) for someone else to resurrect Cunningham’s work.
The absence of representative archiving affects scholarship whenever it attempts to trace a past body of work. Baird’s book, for example, is a full study in English of Hijikata’s main dance works. In the process of writing it, though, Baird’s encountered the issue of discussing old dance performances from decades past where materials are ropey: often just a few photographs and (at times contradictory) written reports. Hijikata was also aware of the problem to some extent and developed his own idiosyncratic notation system he called butoh-fu (“Butoh chronicle”), a loose series of poetic texts and visual images to record his dance in scrapbooks.
Various attempts to archive and redevelop Butoh’s historical endeavours continue to unfold in Japan. Takao Kawaguchi’s recreations of Kazuo Ohno performances have been well received, such as at the Asian Arts Theatre last year.
Similarly, the Dance Archive Project has been ongoing since 2014, “creating new works inspired by the archive materials, but also on collecting documentation and memorabilia connected to the late Kazuo Ohno and Japanese dance history”. There is also a Kazuo Ohno Festival, most recently held in 2015 in Yokohama.
More permanently, the Hijikata Tatsumi Archive at Keio University Art Center was established in 1998 out of Hijikata’s previous official archive, and given to Keio after his widow bankrupted the studio after his death. The institute regularly holds Butoh events, such as a recent lecture and performance by Yoshito Ohno.