Years ago, a former editor at The Stranger and I had an idea for an online video series called "Butoh Attack!" Here's the concept: Start with an everyday urban situation in which you really wish somebody would just hurry up already. A grocery clerk dragging ass at the cash register, say, or a person glacially exiting an elevator, or someone blocking a narrow road while trying to parallel park. Then, a few seconds later, a bolt of lightning zaps down—"Butoh attack!"—and the offending slowpoke would be transformed into a Butoh dancer: nearly naked, in white body paint, moving slower than a slug. Hee-haw.
We abandoned the idea because we had it during the early 2000s and the joke already seemed old: The Butoh fad, we finally admitted to ourselves, was so 1996.
If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's your three-minute synopsis: Butoh is a very specific mode of modern dance that emerged in post-WWII Japan, mostly as a response to (a) the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and (b) the way most Japanese dance at the time was derivative of either Noh or Western styles. The idea was to find a new, autochthonous form—specific to the Japanese body and its lower center of gravity—that would reject the aesthetics of the imperialist West and the old Shinto-influenced Japanese fascism toppled by WWII. The first Butoh performance was infamous and involved founding fathers Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, and his son Yoshito Ohno. It ended with Yoshito holding a live chicken between his legs and being chased offstage by Hijikata. People freaked out, thinking Yoshito had strangled the chicken between his thighs as some kind of comment on "perverse" sexuality. Butoh's clichés include ashen body paint, slow motion, gaping maws in grotesque silent screams, and an obsession with darkness and decay. Some Euro-American dance thinkers fell in love with this unusual aesthetic. Consequently, Butoh is believed to be far more popular in Euro-America than in Japan. Nobody has done rigorous research on the subject (that I know of), but that's the general consensus—and it's supported by my (admittedly tiny and insignificant) experience of living in Japan, where nobody, not even the artists, seemed to give a shit about Butoh.
I have never seriously covered Butoh in the theater section of The Stranger because the form and its narrow aesthetic always seemed like a dead end. Butoh people are like whirling dervishes: devotees of a spiritual practice/lifestyle with a performance component that may look exotic to Euro-American eyes, but which has an extremely limited expressive vocabulary. Butoh choreography is a little like the Marquis de Sade: shocking at first, but soon repetitive. You only have to read de Sade's Justine once to get the idea. As a text, it's not that rich. You don't need to go back and reread it.
But people continue to practice Butoh—and continue to complain that The Stranger doesn't give Butoh the attention it deserves. Well, this week brings Seattle Butoh Festival 2011 and seems as good a time as any to address a persistent art form (or fad, if you're not feeling so generous) that lost its juice over a decade ago.
"I don't think any art form can be totally exhausted," Lane Czaplinski, the artistic director of On the Boards, argues when I ask him to criticize my anti-Butoh prejudice. "But I think you're responding to people who are committed to mining that Butoh form, but are training themselves in such a way that they can't have much of a dialogue with the form."
So Butoh's problem is that its devotees can't innovate? They're just retreading the same ground?
"It's like listening to bad jazz," Czaplinski says. "The musicians are not necessarily repeating Miles Davis. You could hear bad jazz and say, 'Well, jazz has been exhausted.' But you can't claim that jazz was exhausted in the way that Miles Davis played it."
Both Czaplinski and DK Pan—Pan studied and performed Butoh for six years in his 20s and still considers it a major influence on his artistic work—point out that there's no denying the mystifying power of the old Butoh dancers. Some held "impossible poses" for hours and hours, some ran 17 miles just to warm up for a show, and some lived extraordinarily austere lives in the service of a dance/philosophy that was described by its originators in koans such as Butoh is the vein on a dog's leg or Butoh is the dead body trying to stand up.
Unfortunately, these puzzles and physical achievements can seem a little precious to the nondevotee. If you don't "get" Butoh (or even, in some circumstances, if you simply try to interrogate Butoh), you can find yourself accused of being uptight and benighted—just another fool who hasn't spent enough time pondering the one-handed clap. And practitioners of an art form that cannot sustain questioning without reverting to religious indignation are just another pack of believers who share a faith that you don't.
When Pan first encountered Butoh in his early 20s, he didn't like it. "It seemed too goth," he says. About a year later, he saw a Butoh performance at On the Boards that completely changed his mind.
"Sometimes I equate it with punk," Pan says. "It's more about the spirit and the attitude than the form. With the early Butoh, visual artists were making these incredible posters, there was street theater and political protest, lots of spectacle. Whenever I talk about Butoh, it's always full of contradictions. You have huge spectacles with lots of props on one side and then the solo dancer, very minimal, dancing in a cave on the other."
Here's another contradiction: Why are so many Butoh devotees traditionalists in a form that was founded on iconoclasm? Why does so much Butoh still look the same? Akira Kasai (one of the weirder, more experimental Butoh practitioners) quit Butoh at one point in his career and then returned to it, saying: "There is no Butoh, only Butoh dancers."
"See, you can't codify it," Pan says after telling me this story, sounding half-admiring and half-exasperated with the whole concept. "There's a lot to it—it can be really interesting and good, but like improvisational music, it can also veer toward a lot of noodling."
Performance companies across the world borrow from the Butoh vocabulary—including Stranger Genius Award winners Implied Violence, who sometimes employ pallid complexions, gaping maws, and slow motion—but the more seriously a company takes its Butoh, the more they look like they're noodling. Which is fine for them. People should be allowed to play bad jazz—but we don't have to love it.
"Still, there's one thing about Butoh that you just can't discount," Czaplinski says. "It's never been more important to move slowly. Butoh goes into a different time signature than modern life allows."