Issue #012 Published: 18-04-2017 // Written by: Eve Kalyva

Review on stillness and exploration

On 3 and 4 March 2017, Teatro Munganga presented a Butoh festival. With a history of twenty odd years, Munganga welcomes the alternative and the experimental. It is a small but potent site with a clear vision about socio-political engagement and artistic freedom. Butoh is an avant-garde Japanese theatre dance form. It emerged in the late fifties and sixties as a reaction to the national art establishment, and as a rejection of Western conceptions about dance, theatre and art more generally. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the occupation of Japan by what still remains the biggest concentration of American armed forces outside the United States, Butoh is an art form in search of the self.

Through movement, stillness, gestures, props and audio-visual projections, one explores, experiments with and confronts ideas, feelings and conventions in their representation. It is a process of claiming and creating time and space as a means to claim body, presence and identity. This involves putting the self (and the spectacle) at risk. 

A central premise of Modernism, which characterised the historical period of Butoh and which remains highly regarded today, is that of a “significant art form” capable of perfectly capturing an idea and transmitting it to the viewer. Contrary to this, Butoh seeks to open new channels of communication through forms which become meaningful in the moment of their staging. The dancer and, if successfully staged, the viewer undertake a journey of exploration and discovery which oscillates between condensed presence and abstraction, material weight and transcending form, control and un-control, vulnerability and strength. This also means that a Butoh performance is prone to failure.

Ezio Tangini, the festival’s organiser, explains that one feels Butoh in the stomach and not the mind since representations often lie. A very humane art form, Butoh articulates a struggle between representation and embodiment aiming to surpass fear and to find truths in the corporeality of interpersonal communication. 

The festival showcased 12 performances from professional and amateur dancers. Some tried to break free from their morphing bodies or cloth cocoons, and to find themselves while loosing sight of everything else. Trapped inside his skin and a play of light, shadow, organic forms and bodily sounds, another dancer sought to bring down the barrier that divided us from him, our gaze from his stare. It is a barrier that keeps everyone safe and secure; a barrier that limits expression and communication.

Transformation is a key element of Butoh: the transformation of the relation between the self and the body, between the performer and the audience, the self and the other. In a rhythmic dissolution and re-condensation of presence, one seeks to find truth and to share that truth as a process rather than as an end-product. This requires honesty, patience and concentration. For Butoh is not simply about slowing down, the same way that classical ballet is not about managing 16 Italian fouettes. It may also be that, but it is certainly not only that. 

Have you ever wondered that we might be wearing ourselves like a mask? A dancer rises from the floor, casting aside the double-headed fish monster she wears on her head and feet. A man follows with a puppet in hand. Is the puppet an extension of himself, or is it the other way around? The man mediated through a doll. In its fixed and solid state, the puppet explores the remnants of the fish monster and claims its discarded parts as a body. But nothing can really register with it. The doll is not real, you see. In another piece, the dancers struggle between fake and real entertainment while dropping, rather than falling, before standing up again and pushing harder. 

Apart from the narrative of each piece, staging and dramaturgy are also important. There were instances when we could hear bodily sounds and movement but not see them, or asked to stand on the side of the stage which significantly limited our view. Butoh shares critical extensions with other avant-garde art forms regarding the rejection of traditional hierarchies and conceptions. These include the artist as producer and the spectator as consumer, and the artwork as something finite and concluded to be unproblematically received by the audience. In the performing arts, theatre has been explored as a site of confrontation, aiming to transform the way the audience perceives, and by extension reproduces, reality as a means of social and political change (compare Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty (1940s) and Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed (1970s)).

There is often a fine line between acting, re-acting and re-enacting. It is the limit when dance becomes about what we don’t see. If the body of the audience shakes and convulses, then something is working. 

Kees de Haan, I want to show you what I want to hide. Photo by Gaia M.C. Cittati