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Revealing the Mesmerizing Artistry: The Evolution of Butoh Dance

Butoh dance, a unique form of Japanese dance that emerged in the post-war era, is a mesmerizing blend of avant-garde, postmodernism, and classical forms. This article delves into the rich history of Butoh dance, exploring its definition, founders, and the remarkable contributions made by Tatsumi Hijikata.

By examining the roots of this captivating art form, we hope to deepen your understanding and appreciation for Butoh dance.

to Butoh Dance

Definition of Butoh Dance

Butoh dance, often referred to as the “Dance of Darkness,” is a form of Japanese dance that defies conventional boundaries. Unlike traditional classical forms, Butoh embraces the avant-garde and postmodernism, incorporating surreal movements, dramatic gestures, and striking imagery.

Developed as a response to the socio-political climate of post-war Japan, Butoh serves as a powerful means of expression, reflecting the complexities of life and the human condition.

Founders of Butoh Dance

The birth of Butoh dance can be attributed to two remarkable individuals: Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan faced a period of reconstruction and introspection.

Drawing inspiration from their nativist roots and the profound societal changes of the time, Hijikata and Ohno sought to create a dance form that echoed the raw emotions and struggles prevalent in post-war Japan. Tatsumi Hijikata’s Background and Contribution to Butoh Dance

Hijikata’s upbringing and disillusionment with classical dance

Tatsumi Hijikata, the pioneer of Butoh dance, was born in post-war Japan and witnessed the ghastly aftermath of the nuclear bombings.

Raised in a society that struggled to reconcile its past with the present, Hijikata developed a deep sense of disillusionment with classical dance forms. He rejected the rigid structures and conventions of traditional dance, seeking a more authentic and self-expressive avenue for artistic exploration.

Hijikata’s creation of Ankoku-Butoh (The Dance of Darkness)

Driven by his desire to challenge socially constructed manifestations and to explore the depths of human existence, Hijikata conceived Ankoku-Butoh, also known as The Dance of Darkness. This form of Butoh emphasized the grotesque, the unfamiliar, and the raw.

Performances were characterized by startling physicality, surreal imagery, and the breaking of societal norms. Through Ankoku-Butoh, Hijikata sought to convey the pain, suffering, and darker aspects of the human psyche within a mesmerizing and transformative dance experience.


In conclusion, Butoh dance is a captivating art form that emerged from the ashes of post-war Japan. Its origins can be traced back to the visionary contributions of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, both of whom sought to break free from the constraints of classical dance and depict the complexities of human existence.

Through their experimentation with avant-garde and postmodern elements, Butoh dance became a distinctive form of self-expression, challenging societal norms and providing a platform for personal and collective transformation. By immersing ourselves in the rich history and artistry of Butoh dance, we can gain a profound understanding of the human condition and the power of dance as a means of communication.

Kazuo Ohno’s Background and Contribution to Butoh Dance

Ohno’s training in German Expressionist dance

In the realm of Butoh dance, Kazuo Ohno’s contributions are equally significant. Born in Hakodate, Hokkaido in 1906, Ohno exemplified a profoundly spiritual and poetic approach to the art form.

Before delving into Butoh, Ohno immersed himself in the world of German Expressionist dance during a five-year stay in Germany. This experience heavily influenced his artistic journey and laid the foundation for his unique style.

Ohno’s exposure to German Expressionism, a movement known for its expression of raw emotion, physicality, and psychological depth, revolutionized his understanding of dance. Drawing from the works of pioneers like Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg, Ohno incorporated the intense, dramatic gestures of the German Expressionists into his own interpretations of movement.

He embraced the idea that dance could serve as a powerful vehicle for catharsis, allowing the performer and audience alike to experience profound emotional release. Ohno’s improvisational and subtle style in contrast to Hijikata

While Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh focused on raw physicality and startling imagery, Kazuo Ohno’s style differed significantly.

Ohno’s performances were characterized by a sense of delicate fluidity and grace that evoked a deep sense of spirituality. He was known for his improvisational approach, allowing the movements to flow naturally from his body, transcending the boundaries of set choreography.

Ohno’s dances were often described as subtle and introspective, almost hypnotic in their ability to captivate audiences. His gentle, flowing movements seemed to defy gravity, as though guided by an ethereal force.

Ohno frequently referenced the image of a spider delicately spinning its web, comparing his improvisational process to the formation of spiritual spider silk. This metaphor encapsulated the delicate nature of his movements, as well as the profound interconnectedness between the physical and spiritual realms.

First Performance and Controversy

Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) as Hijikata’s first recognized Butoh performance

One of the pivotal moments in the development of Butoh dance was Tatsumi Hijikata’s first recognized performance, “Kinjiki” (Forbidden Colours). Premiering in 1959, this groundbreaking piece incorporated elements of Ankoku-Butoh, challenging societal norms and provoking thought on taboo subjects.

In “Kinjiki,” Hijikata explored themes of homosexuality, drawing inspiration from the controversial novel of the same name by Yukio Mishima. Through his dance, Hijikata aimed to convey the powerful, yet often repressed, energy of sexual desire and the complexities of interpersonal relationships.

This exploration of forbidden love and the emotional landscape associated with it marked a significant departure from traditional dance forms, shocking and unsettling the audience.

Uproar and alienation from the contemporary dance circle

The performance of “Kinjiki” and subsequent Butoh works caused a considerable uproar in the contemporary dance circle at the time. The All Japan Art Dance Association, an organization that oversaw the development and promotion of contemporary dance, did not easily accept Hijikata’s avant-garde approach.

Butoh’s unconventional movements, grotesque body images, and societal critiques ran counter to the association’s vision of dance. As a result, Hijikata and his followers faced alienation from the mainstream dance community.

However, this rejection did not deter the Butoh pioneers. Instead, it fueled their determination to establish Butoh as a distinct form of expression.

The controversy surrounding Butoh only served to solidify its identity as a rebellious and transformative art form, challenging societal norms and encouraging the exploration of the human psyche. In conclusion, Kazuo Ohno’s unique style, influenced by German Expressionism, brought a delicate and improvisational dimension to the world of Butoh dance.

His spiritual approach and fluid movements added a sense of grace and introspection to the art form. Additionally, Tatsumi Hijikata’s groundbreaking performance of “Kinjiki,” exploring taboo subjects and defying societal conventions, sparked controversy and led to the alienation of Butoh from the contemporary dance circle.

However, these challenges only strengthened the determination of Hijikata and his contemporaries to establish Butoh as a transformative and boundary-pushing art form. Together, Ohno and Hijikata contributed to shaping Butoh into a profound means of personal and collective expression, solidifying its place in the world of dance.

Expressionist Roots and Characteristics of Butoh Dance

Influence of Expressionist dance and rejection of classical ballet

One of the key influences on Butoh dance is Expressionist dance, a movement that emerged in Europe during the early 20th century. Expressionist dancers sought to break free from the confines of classical ballet and embrace a more modernist approach to movement.

This rejection of classical ballet, with its rigid technique and emphasis on the virtuosic body, resonated deeply with the Butoh pioneers. Classical ballet, with its forced social conditioning and strict adherence to established norms, was seen as stifling by Hijikata and Ohno.

They sought to liberate the body from these constraints and explore movement that was raw and authentic. The rejection of classical ballet in Butoh allowed for a more organic and visceral expression, where the body became a vessel for the exploration of deeper emotional and psychological states.

Embrace of socially outcast conditions and exploration of weakened bodies

Butoh dance embraces the conditions of those who are socially outcast or marginalized. Hijikata and Ohno sought to shed light on the human experience as it pertains to those who are deemed weak or undesirable by society.

Through their movements, they depicted the struggles and vulnerability that come with being part of these marginalized groups. Exploration of weakened bodies became a prominent aspect of Butoh dance.

Performers contorted their bodies, expressing physical weakness, and even embodying death and diseases. The weakened body symbolized the fragility and temporality of human existence, the universal condition that transcends societal labels.

By exploring these themes, Butoh dancers aimed to delve into the subconscious and reveal the hidden depths of human experience. Hijikata’s Butoh-Fu: Butoh Dance Scores

Importance of Butoh-fu as embodying physical conditions through suggestive phrases

One of Tatsumi Hijikata’s significant contributions to Butoh dance was the development of Butoh-fu, which could be translated as Butoh dance scores. These scores served as guides for performers, providing them with suggestive phrases and movements to explore physical conditions.

Butoh-fu allowed Hijikata to transmit his artistic vision to others, ensuring that his ideas and concepts would continue to be embodied in future performances. Butoh-fu embodied physical conditions by using suggestive language and imagery.

Phrases such as “walk like a dead fish,” “crawl like a newborn baby,” or “writhe like a worm” encouraged performers to access and express specific physical states. Through these suggestive phrases, Hijikata aimed to tap into the body’s inherent knowledge and bypass conscious control.

By embodying physical conditions, Butoh dancers connected with the universal aspects of human experience and communicated them to the audience through visceral movement.

Lack of fixed Butoh-fu and borrowing phrases from literature

Unlike traditional dance forms, Butoh-fu lacks fixed choreography or strict movements. It allows performers the freedom to interpret and explore their unique physicality and emotions.

Hijikata himself emphasized the importance of individual expression within the framework of Butoh-fu. Butoh-fu also drew inspiration from literature, particularly works of existentialist and absurdist authors.

Hijikata’s collaboration with the writer Yukio Waguri exemplified the fusion of literature and Butoh. Waguri’s poetic and evocative phrases became an integral part of Butoh-fu scores, infusing performances with rich imagery and narrative possibilities.

This borrowing of phrases from literature expanded the range of possibilities within Butoh, allowing for the embodiment of complex emotions and deepening the connection between language and movement. In conclusion, Butoh dance draws upon the roots of Expressionist dance, rejecting the rigid structures of classical ballet in favor of a more authentic and modernist approach.

Butoh embraces socially outcast conditions and explores weakened bodies, shedding light on the universal human experience. Tatsumi Hijikata’s development of Butoh-fu, with its suggestive phrases and embodiment of physical conditions, allowed for the transmission of his artistic vision.

The lack of fixed Butoh-fu and the borrowing of phrases from literature added depth and individual expression to performances. By embracing the expressionist roots and employing Butoh-fu, Butoh dance continues to evolve as a powerful means of artistic expression and exploration.

Contemporary Butoh Dance

Various iterations of Butoh today

Butoh dance has continued to evolve and transform over the years, giving rise to various iterations of contemporary Butoh. This form of dance has expanded beyond the stage, blurring the boundaries between dance and performance art.

Contemporary Butoh practitioners have pushed the limits of the art form, experimenting with new techniques, concepts, and contexts. In contemporary Butoh, there is often a focus on meditative presence and the exploration of internal states.

Performers delve deep within themselves, tapping into their emotions, memories, and subconscious in order to express the essence of their being. This meditative approach allows for a profound and transformative experience for both the performer and the audience.

Another characteristic of contemporary Butoh is the deconstruction of norms and societal expectations. This form of dance challenges traditional notions of beauty, gender, and identity, inviting the audience to question and confront their own preconceived ideas.

Contemporary Butoh encourages the exploration of the unconventional, pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or normal.

Examples of contemporary Butoh practitioners and their methodologies

Numerous contemporary Butoh practitioners have emerged, each bringing their own unique methodologies and artistic visions to the art form. Atsushi Takenouchi, a renowned Butoh performer and teacher, emphasizes a deep connection between the body, nature, and the spiritual world.

His approach, known as Jinen Butoh, explores the theme of interconnectedness, embodying the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Through his teachings, Takenouchi encourages performers to cultivate a strong presence and to surrender to the energies that flow through them.

Yumiko Yoshioka, another celebrated Butoh artist, approaches the dance with a focus on the body as a vessel for transformation. Her methodology, called “Seisaku,” invites performers to tap into their physical and emotional landscapes, exploring sensations and memories through movement.

Yoshioka’s teachings emphasize the importance of connecting with the audience on a visceral level, creating an intimate and immersive experience. Butoh festivals around the world provide a platform for contemporary Butoh practitioners to showcase their works and exchange ideas.

One such festival is Hakutohboh, held annually in Hakodate, Japan. This event brings together Butoh artists from various countries and allows them to present their unique interpretations of the art form.

The festival fosters collaboration, experimentation, and the exploration of new possibilities within Butoh dance. In conclusion, contemporary Butoh dance has taken on various forms and has expanded beyond the conventional stage setting.

It encompasses performance art, explores meditative presence, and challenges societal norms. Practitioners like Atsushi Takenouchi and Yumiko Yoshioka have developed their own methodologies, offering unique perspectives on Butoh.

Butoh festivals such as Hakutohboh provide platforms for collaboration and exchange among artists. As Butoh continues to evolve and adapt, it remains a powerful and transformative art form that pushes the boundaries of expression and challenges our perceptions of dance.

In conclusion, Butoh dance is a unique and transformative art form that emerged in post-war Japan, combining avant-garde, postmodernism, and classical influences. Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno laid the foundation for Butoh, with Hijikata’s Ankoku-Butoh focusing on rebellion and surreal imagery, while Ohno’s style embraced delicate movements and spirituality.

Butoh dancers reject classical ballet, explore weakened bodies, and challenge societal norms. Contemporary Butoh has expanded to encompass performance art and meditation, with practitioners like Atsushi Takenouchi and Yumiko Yoshioka developing their own methodologies.

Butoh festivals provide platforms for collaboration, promoting the evolution and exploration of the art form. Butoh’s profound expression of the human experience leaves a lasting impression, inviting us to question societal conventions, tap into our subconscious, and embrace the transformative power of movement.

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