I first stumbled across Butoh at the Edinburgh Festival seven years ago. A show called Zeitgiest by Brisbane-based Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre was receiving rave reviews, and although it didn’t sound like something I’d normally choose to see, I put my faith in the critics. And, boy, am I glad I did. My friend and I left the theatre in stunned silence: Did that just happen? What just happened? Can we go back and see it again, please? Just a few of the questions whizzing around our seisimically-stimulated neurons.
Butoh is an avant garde Japanese performance art founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the early 1960s in rejection of western dance and rigid Japanese dance traditions. Over the years Butoh has drawn on and fused together elements of different historical periods and influences, including expressionism, the rebellion of the 1960s, surrealism, Flamenco and mime. The result is a kind of ritualistic, primal earth-dance where the internal is externalised and the external internalised by the performer. Butoh’s unconscious improvised movements, which rely on strength, flexibility and balance, allow the body to move authentically, free of social constraints. In Butoh it is often said that ‘the dancer should not dance, but be danced’.
” Butoh is a hybrid form of art, incorporating elements of theatre, dance, mime, Noh, Kabuki and at times the Chinese arts of Chi kung and Tai chi. It is up to the individual artist to find their own dance. But it should be a “dance” of discovery, rather than a calculated series of movements meant to manipulate the audience into a desired response.” – Don McLeod
Today Butoh is an ever-developing art form which is practiced and performed across the globe.
Zen Zen Zo’s Zeitgeist is an example of Butoh at its most raw, erotic and nightmarish. Think Dali meets David Lynch with a side order of Tarantino. The show, directed by Lynne Bradley, perfectly embodied the philosophy of Butoh dance to its core: naked bodies painted white, writhing, stretching, contracting and contorting: from their eyelids to their little toes it seemed every part of each performer’s anatomy was involved in this wild, visceral fantasy. At one point they cracked raw eggs into their mouths and spewed yolk up over each other and the front row of audience. It sounds grotesque. It was. But in no way was it gratuitous – in a strange way, it was beautiful.
I got back from Edinburgh, wanting to know more about this fascinating dance form. I Googled Butoh and discovered there was a Butoh workshop taking place in Brighton the following month. That’s one of the things I love about this city: you name it, there’s a workshop for it. And more often that not, it’s here at Evolution Arts, winky face. On this occasion, however, the workshop was run by Butoh Brighton.
Eight years on, Yael Karavan, an award winning performer, dancer and director, and one of the three founding members of Butoh Brighton, came to Evolution Arts to deliver her Butoh Dance Workshop, and I was lucky enough to be among its participants.
Israeli born Yael has trained with several Butoh Masters including Kazuo Ohno and Tadashi Endo and her passion for this dance tradition was evident from the off.
Over the course of the two days Yael took us through a series of exercises that allowed us to discover and experiment with the basic elements of Butoh. The power and intensity of Butoh became clear early on, and proved both physically and emotionally challenging, especially for those in the group with no previous dance experience. But this didn’t stop any of us from taking part and exploring the art form in the safe, encouraging and fun space Yael had created.
At times, we were separate entities growing from inside each individual cell of our body, at others we were working in pairs, responding intuitively to our partners movements and creating a spontaneous conversation with our bodies. At times, we became one large connected being, changing form and shape like the starlings over Brighton Pier.
In the very last exercise Yael put little white paper hats on our heads and transformed us into Warriors of Peace. We walked up and down the studio in the slow crouched Butoh walk – our synchronised bodies pulled along by an invisible external and internal force -, an exhausted but joyful united front calling for: ‘Peace, Health, Love, Kindness, Empathy and Justice.’ A perfect end to a unifying and powerful workshop. And, not an eggy face in sight.
Another dance workshop, CREATIVE LAND, is happening at Evolution Arts on 25 & 26 March. Run by Marcos Rangel and Rodrigo Carinhana (pictured above), this workshop welcomes any adventurous spirit, be they performer, actor, dancer or anyone in the mood for discovery. The work will focus on the quest that nourishes us, and its motivation. Using elements of Afro-Brazilian tradition (songs, rhythms and dances – see below), you’ll be encouraged to open your imagination and discover true – rather than mechanical – action and seek creative answers to the deepest demands of our being. On the way, you will discover how to listen, stay aware, react, imagine, and be entirely present in yourself. Physical training, awareness of the space, voice work and song will help create a structure of individual and collective action – a Creative Land. Book your place here.