Philosophy of BUTOH
a worldwide philosophy or a local dance style?
by Mehdi FARAJPOUR
Edited by Alan Casey
To begin with, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, I should reveal that I do not aim to cut Butoh off from its Japanese roots by this article. However I intend to take a close look at Butoh separately from its nationalistic point of view.
Discussing Butoh without taking into account its original roots seems to be very complicated. In this regard, I mean the original culture of Japan which we learned about from Zen Buddhism and Japanese literature, and ‘Haiku’ in particular.
Firstly, one basic question arises as to the importance of our knowledge about Japan’s native culture as foreigner Butoh artists. However, on the other hand it does not look like an easy question, since undoubtedly Butoh has evolved widely throughout the world and not only in Japan. It means that the whole world has become a dynamic cradle to help Butoh develop and evolve into many different derivatives which should be considered as one. Thus, I will attempt to provide some interpretation of this fascinating subject.
Referring to the metaphor that states that several branches originate from just a single stem, we should refer to it as a tree because of all parts of the tree constitute the tree’s being. In short, it is called a tree because of its totality. Only a leaf, stem or a few branches do not constitute a tree by themselves. Thus, when we refer to Butoh, we should not ignore its internationally dimension. Therefore, since Butoh as a contemporary form of art expression opened a new chapter in the world of dancing, it would be more proper to discuss it in the context of it being a global phenomenon and discuss its totality. Besides, the philosophy of Butoh itself does not fit in a limited frame of its original land of birth. This is because it could be considered that its core has enough mobility to drag itself out of its original borders.
Moreover, only basic of knowledge about Japan as the main source of Butoh seems to be sufficient for most Butoh dancers. But the basic question is:
Is this knowledge prerequisite for Butoh artists coming from different backgrounds? I do not think so.
I believe that Butoh tries to tell such big stories based on human life, human rights, returning to natural roots, looking at the purity of primitive life as well as humanity, regardless of any nationality or pedigree. Therefore it can belong to every nationality. Butoh is not just limited to any one nationality. The evolution of Butoh is not less important than its origin. Needless to say it is only 50 years old. The context that gave birth to Butoh was a sort of rebellion against authority and international conflicts such as the European holocaust and in particular, as a reaction to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore it does not seem complicated to realize that this historical context illustrates that there must be some strong political reasons behind Butoh as well as a human rights basis.
That is why I firmly believe that there would be a strong paradoxical confusion if we were to consider Butoh as an absolute Japanese art form without envisaging its international aspects.
At this point I would like to criticize some new formality movements in Butoh teaching. It does not seem so reasonable to forget about its mission and look at Butoh as some strange physical movements. The teaching I mean here refers to only some shallow aspects of Butoh as the whole of its existence. For me, despite being a choreographer and dancer, Butoh does not mean only making the body move in a strange way or not moving in order to stay in an absurd position. In my opinion there must be something more than this behind Butoh teaching as well as its demonstrations. Generally speaking, since Butoh is not only several words but is a perfect language, in order to make her/his sentences Butoh artists should select her/his own words from this language.
Furthermore, we should not forget about the other very important aspect of Butoh. I like to refer to this as the ‘anti beauty’ feature of Butoh, since it is not only an aesthetic performance style. Hence Butoh`s philosophy of existence seems to be according to the theory which says ‘nothing beautiful is left after Auschwitz’. I think this symbolic sentence is much more important to discovering the purity of Butoh as a philosophy than its cultural roots. As “Hijikata” – the founder of Butoh – asked the Butoh followers: “do not try to be beautiful”. Therefore, this will lead Butoh dancers toward an opposite direction to what Butoh`s philosophy looks for as a demonstrative art style against the classical definition of beauty and rules.
Returning to the main subject, making limitations for such a wild phenomenon is absolutely against the ethos of Butoh and shows a deep lack of understanding about how Butoh has developed. For instance, Butoh is a dance form specific to Japanese body language and mentality. I believe that yoga does not belong to just Indian people but all peoples regardless of their nationalities. Of course I do not aim to say that one who wants to try yoga or Butoh does not need to gain any knowledge of its basis, but I mean that it is not necessary to be a Butoh artist as well as being a yogi. Hence I can not say being Persian is necessary for understanding the poetry of Rumi, Hafez or Khayyam.
In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to expand the discussion to say this is not because of their nationality but because of their potential as human beings. This is because of their multi-faceted ability – artists in particular – to interpret in different ways.
For me as a Persian artist who has been involved in the philosophy of Butoh much more than its physical techniques, the political aspect of Butoh is more significant than its other features, even much more than its absurd nature which seems to be the most important meaning of Butoh amid European dancers or its meditative feature for Asians. I assume that European Butoh dancers mostly look at Butoh as a strange way of bodily expression or presence on the stage.
This might be one reason why European Butoh dancers as well as Americans mostly like to improvise instead of following a clear and already designed choreography. Since I have not met many Middle Eastern Butoh dancers, it is difficult for me to ascertain their opinions.
At this point I would like to indicate my opinion about these two kinds of presentation. That is, improvisation on the one hand and original Butoh on the other. According to the main topic of the article – Butoh as a philosophy or a dance style – I will deem both techniques as closed ways of Butoh presentation that are completely disconnected from the main philosophy of Butoh. This is because I believe that Butoh has a double meaning:
A) Butoh as a Dance
B) Butoh as an Antidance
Then these two headlines which I am going to use as the foundation of my idea below, will lead us towards a Butoh style which is something in between absolute choreography and absolute improvisation. Therefore according to this point of view I believe that the best structure for Butoh performance would be something in between. Let`s say improvisation on a specified choreography.
‘Following the choreography and not to follow it in the meantime.’
In this way, some movements or positions are already designed and some others would be according to current trends of demonstration. Sometimes preconceived, sometimes wild. This way would give more freedom to Butoh artists to interact with new audiences. In my opinion this view gives the best definition of Butoh as rebelling against the structure of the performance itself. In this way, we would respect the philosophy of Butoh as well.
Returning to the main topic of the article, at this point, plenty of questions arise. Questions such as:
– What is Butoh and what it should be?
– Is it a national kind of folkloric dance or is there an international wide meaning behind it?
– How much is Butoh influenced by Japanese classic or folkloric arts?
– How much does it belong to global contemporary way of thinking? (since unfortunately, according to the rules of capitalism and globalist media, contemporary culture in all parts of the world are becoming similar)
– How deep our Butoh performance could be, if we look at it from the viewpoints of nationalities other than Japanese?
Of course a recent phenomenon like Butoh which is only 50 years old, has not been immune from international influences. This is because international acceptance of Butoh after its initial presentation in Europe was very important for it to be known in the world and become popular, despite the ideas of some performing art theorists concerning Butoh`s European roots. Those sort of theorists who believe that Butoh was sparked from new European theatrical movements like Antonin Artuad`s ideas on “Theatre of Cruelty” as well as “Towards Poor Theatre” by Jerzy Grotowski and then moved to Asia. But since history is sometimes unclear, I do not want to start looking forward to what will succeed Butoh!
Therefore, from my point of view, considering Butoh philosophically is more important than its origin. I can accept the importance of Japanese Buddhist imagination that is clearly visible through the expression of Butoh, but on the other hand I believe that if we accept its the main element of Butoh which criticizes classical rules of art, lifestyle, politics and so on, we should accept its aspect contrary to its own nationalism – in particular Japanism – as well.
Of course this endless discussion will not find any resolution in determining what Butoh is or what it should be. That is the reality of anarchism whether in the arts world or in politics. How I would like to consider Butoh does not accept any limited frame because of its paradoxical and opposite elements which exist next to each other. Overall, that is why I deeply believe that the only framework for Butoh should be ‘Making rules and breaking them down at the same time’. We may call it the ‘unexpected characteristic of Butoh’ and refer to it as the only rule of Butoh. ‘Unexpected’ like the atomic bomb attacks, like the idea of the gas chambers, like all wars as well as life, ultimately.
Tampere, Finland, August 2009