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Butoh: When the Body Is Transmuted Through Silent Dancing


Butoh dance allows us to regain the body that has been taken from us, the primal body

The bruised, frightened and destroyed body has been an alluring image since the dawn of modernity, and this is not without reason. We should not take this for granted. Witnessing war and violence has given artists the need to react, denounce, represent or simply express the pain and grief.

From Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War to the etchings of Otto Dix, terrifying images have revealed to the world the plastics of war––mutilated heads and dismembered limbs which have prevailed in the minds of committed creators. At the same time, theater, dance and music have represented bodies contorted in pain. Think of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with Vaslav Nijinksy’s choreography with its limitless representations of bodies wasted away by emotion. The idea of someone who dances until he/she dies and is then given over to the God of Spring as a sacred offering is such a dramatic and profound theme that it reaches out to our very core.

World War II brought us the nonsense of economic and human waste, and with its obvious futility and spiritual agony, prompted artists to represent the trauma entailed in military action. Out of this tradition Butoh was born––a dance that communicates these physical agonies, these incomparable terrors that arise when the reason is numb and that attracts the monsters of death.

Butoh took its form in 1950 when the Japanese choreographers Kasuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata saw a need to represent the new body of history, the postwar body. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they searched for ways to approach the nameless atrocities that the victims had endured. Both artists submerged themselves in an agonizing journey to give shape to the visions of broken bodies and cries of pain.

In trying to understand the victims’ experiences, the duo created a sort of micro-tremor dance. In some occasions they danced naked or with very little clothing (which) reaped the audience’s contempt and discouraged the artists. But they prevailed, impetuous, with a profound necessity to transform their act into something more ghostly, smoky, dusty, or animalistic animals––a transformation they were actually able to go through in various presentations.

From their first show, Forbbiden Colors, presented in 1959 and inspired by Yukio Mishima’s eponymous novel, it was clear that Butoh would change theater not only in Japan but throughout the world, for the transmuted body, the objectified body, the alienated body is undeniably the great modern terror not only for artists but for the daily actors in this strange and decadent dance called life. Butoh emerged like the phoenix from the ashes to give birth to a new and peaceful vision of the world.

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