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Not Thinking, Only Soul

There was this rusted foam-and-vinyl office chair tucked out of the path of traffic on the ferry’s car deck. Lee the butoh dancer pointed it out: a broom was propped against the chair, next to a fire alarm and a cage full of what looked like buckets.

Possession Sound, the slit-gray bay I grew up by, scrolled past us. If it hadn’t been for the hard wind and shitting gulls, the dancers we were with would have gotten out of the Subaru to do a dance with the broom and chair. It was a perfect butoh setting–eerie, nature-edged, barely figural.

So: what exactly is butoh?

The form’s easily identified by its contrasts. The dancers in Japan’s classical theater forms, noh and kabuki, are anonymized behind folkloric sources, figured masks and symbol-laden, proportional gesture. By their pose and balance, you’ll know them:

Butoh exactly opposes these conventions. A Japanese modern dance carried into existence almost entirely on the bony shoulders of Tatsumi Hijikata (deceased) and Kazuo Ohno (now 103 years old, bed-bound but still absorbed in an inner dance), butoh as a discipline is almost all spiritual. I’m hardheaded enough it was an effort for me–in an unfurnished mother-in-law studio on Whidbey–to first enter. What does one do?

Kazuo Ohno, in his aphoristic prose, privileged only “openness, concentration, truth.” Ohno was a Baptist and WWII veteran, coming to dance only in his late 20s and not giving it up until his 90s.

If you press for details of craft, butoh dancers speak of opened gateways, body weather, impersonality (my teacher quoted Rumi: snowmelt “washing itself of itself”), brokenness-toward-beauty. My teacher told us: imagine the sand running out of you. Lie on the floor, imagine the moon’s on the precise opposite side of the planet.

So: what does butoh look like? It often starts dark and grotesque, a sludge light shines implicitly behind. Decidedly non-butoh choreographer George Balanchine remarked, “We all live in the same time forever. There is no future and there is no past.” Butoh hyper-extends this sentiment, forswearing “head pictures” as inspiration and, in its emotional arcs, giving up forward for inward motion.

Any art privileging soul privileges–builds from–the needs and appetites of the soul. Butoh exaggerates gestures to disrupt style, to the point that the gestures are recognizable again. Like Rodin’s sculpture,

butoh’s life-like in the sense of pantomime catching an inner image, a self-we-slip-into. In butoh you see reed motion or the one unpinned wing, a face you bury in flowers or soft moss, the greed of a lover, the grotesquely aged child.

Flaubert: “Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.” Can wound and breath be all of a certain art? One late exercise involved watching a living thing (I chose an inchworm, little verb-body) for a half hour. After a day’s study and bloodletting, I couldn’t get up off the floor when it was my turn to perform.