Butoh is an art form which is at the same time instantly recognisable, but extremely elusive of description or definition. Like the paintings of Francis Bacon, the way one is brought in contact with the force of reality comes from an aesthetic which is a tightrope walk between horror and beauty, one which you often cannot bear to watch, but which commands your attention. It’s an exquisitely refined form of body work and its character and costumes range from the most simply graceful to the most anarchically, dramatically tragic. It has the capacity to convey the whole range of human experience through the body.

Butoh at the Stade
PICTURE Sin Bozkurt

Origins of Butoh
In 1960 a conservative government renewed the Mutual Security Treaty allowing US military bases in Japan. It marked the end of hostile US occupation, and began a period of modernisation and democratisation which was a period of considerable instability and adjustment. The Arts responded with waves of assimilation and rejection of Western culture. The avant garde and politically engaged Youth Art Theatre was inspired by German expressionism and was part of a movement which sought to subvert accepted ways of doing things.  Juro Kara, an existentialist director,  rejected the use of theatres for performance, setting up the Red Tent at Shinjuku station. The graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo created a fashionable aesthetic from the ugly and irrational. It was a period of anarchic, provocative, but self-conscious reconfiguring of Japanese traditions: the ‘rituals of inversion’ which were part of folklore, involving grotesque masks and dances and outrageous behaviours.

Butoh came out of this climate. German expressionism remained a huge influence with its focus on the exploration of an inner landscape and its reinvention of all the arts from architecture to dance. A dance form began to evolve which could be a creative interaction between form and content, where expression was more important than creating an interpretation of traditional dance vocabulary.

Butoh dancers
PICTURE Sin Bozkurt

Don’t be a Bonsai
Kazuyo Ono and Tatsumi Hijikata were pioneers of the new form, though when they began to collaborate, Ono had been dancing for over twenty years: it took time to develop a kind of dance that had no prescribed forms. Dance was an intense way of existing, a means of a more authentic way for the body to express itself. All habits of movement and rules of dance had to be undone to reveal a relationship with the inner world. “Dance”, said Ono,”should be capable of representing the universal in its purest and most abstract expression….If it remains too close to daily life, it reminds us of mime and cannot throw light on the confusion of reality. If too abstract, all connection with reality disappears and the audience fail to be moved.” It requires total presence, exposing without concealment the nature of experience.

It is also an aesthetic developed to process the suffering of the Japanese people after the war and has as much to do with renewal and finding stillness and serenity as with the expression of trauma,. “ You shouldn’t become a bonsai”, says Hijikata. “You have been having a hard time living in the body, where movement patterns  have become tamed and domesticated. It’s  because you have lost sight of your body…”. He also connects with a deeply different body conception from ours: “The Japanese have a fundamentally anarchic conception of the body. When we walk…we are continually off balance….Western dance begins with its feet firmly placed on the ground whereas Butoh begins with a dance wherein the dancer tries in vain to find his feet.”

Yumino Seki, Butoh dancer in St Leonards
Butoh allows for an endless potential for re-interpretation, for finding new forms inspired by other cultural influences. Yumino Seki is an internationally respected Butoh dancer living in Hastings. She trained in Japan and the UK and with Butoh companies in Europe, especially in Germany.

For Yumino, it’s a way to integrate mind, body and emotion. Its beauty derives from its roots both in the metaphysics of Buddhism: there is life after death, so there is beauty in decay, and the principle of wabi-sabi where an imperfection makes something much more beautiful. Her work is infinitely varied. Local projects include HYAKKI YAKOU, or A Night Walk of 100 Demons, at Hastings Museum; Manjusaka, or The Equinox Flower, performed at the Stade, and an appearance in Andrew Kötting’s Klipperty Klöp II.

She is one of the cast of Patrick Kealey’s Hamlet, currently at St. Mary in the Castle and later at Bexhill College and Rye Creative Centre.  Patrick has asked her to play the ghost of Hamlet’s father. “After all,” he said, “what is a ghost, but something completely unexpected, outside your frame of reference.”  This is an interesting choice. Japanese ghosts seem to have much more potency than English ghosts who generally arrive in period dress, as a shadow, or with only a chilly glance and broken, sonorous voice to distinguish them. Like the ghosts of the Greeks in Hades, they can speak, think and feel, but they have no physicality and only exercise agency through the living. Japanese ghosts, in modern film iconography, can be horrific in aspect, drawing on the traditions of the grotesque which also influence Butoh. Yet they can also be terrifyingly ordinary and the line between physical presence and the lack of it can be much more abruptly drawn. In the traditional tale of the woman with black hair, filmed by directors Masai Mori (1959) and Masai Kobayashi (1963), a husband spends a whole night with his wife, before discovering her, shockingly, as a long dead corpse in the morning.

Yumino also appears in two other roles and so links the plays to the mysterious undercurrent of the psyche. Patrick is fascinated by the idea of introducing into a quintessentially verbal art, one which is purely somatic, which has its origins in that patient abstraction, stillness and sense of the internal world which is so characteristic of a Japanese aesthetic. A Butoh dancer has all the delicacy and white-faced anguish, or joy, of a body that is entirely spirit.

Hamlet is being performed at St Mary in the Castle 22nd-24th February; at Bexhill College 27th February; at Rye Creative Centre 28th February,1st-3rd March.

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