World Theatre Traditions – Butoh

Extract from A Short Introduction to Butoh by Frances Barbe

So what traits might we consider to be ‘butoh’? A definitive description would never satisfy the breadth of artists involved in it, but a few recurrent themes are useful by way of introduction. Butoh is an attempt to uncover the dance that already exists, it must emerge from within, and not be imposed from without. Butoh uses ‘reduction’ to great effect, for example, stillness and slow motion are well known to audiences of Butoh. Done well, highly charged stillness and very embodied slow motion can heighten the awareness of the dancer and their audience to the detail of movement, and it can explore timeframes beyond the everyday. Reduction or distillation heightens presence, though stillness and slow motion themselves do not account for the absolute presence associated with butoh. Often observed as a kind of ‘trance’, it is more accurate to say the butoh dancer is in a state of ‘hyper-presence’, aware of everything going on around them and within their own body. The fact that butoh dancers often seem ‘other’ than themselves is the result of their skills in transformation.

The two original founders of butoh, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata offer seemingly contradictory advice on the process of transformation. Ohno might say, ‘find the spirit, and form will take care of itself’. Hijikata might say, ‘find the architecture of the cat, and the spirit will enter’. They approach the same point from different perspectives. Another distinctive aspect of transformation in butoh is that performers don’t necessarily use only human characters as a source. Equally ready to explore transforming into a stone or a wet rug the butoh dancer draws on the full range of textures available in the natural world and attempt to manifest those physical and psychic materials in their bodies. Yoko Ashikawa, one of the earliest female exponents of butoh, danced a tree enduring the changing seasons. For the audience though, her body can become an old woman or their grandmother reliving all of life’s experiences. To think of an old woman is not necessarily the best way to transform into old woman.

Extract from Kazuo Ohno Doesn’t Commute: An Interview with Kazuo Ohno by Richard Schechner

Kazuo Ohno on how he makes the movements:

My mother was my director. She was the one I thought about. The movement motifs of My Mother came from what I thought I was doing in my mother’s womb. I was in her-what was I doing there? Then came the costume-how to wear the costume. I feel that the costume is the cosmos. I must wear the cosmos and move within it. The other motif is cats. I studied their movements and looked at pictures of them. Even in pictures you get a certain kind of movement.

Extract from Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh by Kurihara Nanako 

Kurihara Nanako on Butoh lessons with Ashikawa Yōko, a leading disciple of Hijikata Tatsumi.

In Ashikawa’s class, there were routine basic exercises. One of them was called mushikui (insect bites). A student is first told, “An insect is crawling from between your index finger and middle finger onto the back of your hand and then on to your lower arm and up to your upper arm.” The teacher rubs a drumstick back and forth across a drum, making a slithering sound. Then she touches those particular parts of the body to give some physical sense to the student. The number of insects increases one by one and finally, “You have no purpose. In the end, you are eaten by insects who enter through all the pores of your body, and your body becomes hollow like a stuffed animal.” Each insect has to be in its precise place. One should not confuse or generalize the insects even when their numbers increase. The most difficult part of this exercise was that one had to “be it,” not merely “imagine it.” This was emphasized in the class again and again. The condition of the body itself has to be changed. Through words, Hijikata’s method makes dancers conscious of their physiological senses and teaches them to objectify their bodies. Dancers can then “reconstruct” their bodies as material things in the world and even as concepts.’ By practicing the exercises repeatedly, dancers learn to manipulate their own bodies physiologically and psychologically. As a result, butoh dancers can transform themselves into everything from a wet rug to a sky and can even embody the universe, theoretically speaking.

Butoh Documentary – Piercing the Mask

Using contemporary footage of leading Butoh performers, this documentary presents the history of the development of butoh dance, interviews the creator of this Japanese modern dance form, Tatsumi Hijikata and other artists and explores the cultural significance of the Butoh dance form in Japan.

Butoh in Europe

This is a six part documentary of two weeks of workshops and performances exploring European interpretations of the Japanese movement form Butoh held at schloss Bröllin in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, North East Germany in the long hot summer of 1995.


Artaud’s Anguine Audience

Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Artistic intentions
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: Another important distinguishing point is his perception of audiences. I know that his work never really had a chance to establish an audience but how did he envisage the audience?

RM: I think one of my favourite quotes, it is not an exact quote but slightly paraphrasing it, he says that, ‘audience members should be treated like snakes and they should feel every vibration.’ The theatre should communicate with the audience through vibration like with snakes. So the audience is a passive vehicle. But at the same time the audience are not passive because they become an active part of the process.

PC: Are the audience’s bodies physically engaged with the bodily experience of the performer?

RM: Yes, what you think of the boundaries between the body of the audience member and what they see on stage should be somehow disrupted. But it only seems to go in one direction, so it is only from the performer to the audience. The audience is incorporated into the spectacle but almost against their will. You have to abandon all intellectual capacity and just be, be subjected to this onslaught.

PC: I know he talks about the audience being encircled in The Theatre of Cruelty manifesto. Has that disruption and onslaught been realised in other peoples work since Artaud? Perhaps The Living Theatre and their ‘happenings’. Their Paradise Now seemed to disrupt those boundaries.

RM: Yes, there is a lot within performance art. I don’t know to what extent they are really ‘Artaudian’ but there are a lot of people who speak about Artaud as an influence. Stephen Barber has written quite a bit about Artaud’s influence on The Living Theatre and Japanese Butoh, as well as, people like Marina Abramovic: people that use their bodies as a vehicle.

PC: What were the aesthetics of his theatre? Was it connected to the Tarahumaras and Balinese dance experience?

RM: When I think about the aesthetics of it, the thing that springs to mind is lighting and sound. It ties in with the all engulfing, sensory experience.

PC: It has to “satisfy the senses”. How does he write about lighting and sound?

RM: He writes about using all the latest technology. Basically it should be spectacular. With sound I know he wanted to use this instrument the Ondes Martenot which is similar to a theremin. It makes a weird wobbly sound. He was really interested with engaging with technology which is another way that he was quite innovative. He was quite anti-sound in cinema but he was into using all the new technical possibilities in the theatre to enhance this sensory experience.

PC: Are there any examples of this sensory experience in action?

RM: Les Cenci but that had negative reviews that said it was too overwhelming and there was nothing subtle about it. It was too much of an assault on the senses.

PC: I think that is a common difficulty that teachers have with the work that students produce under the umbrella of being Artaudian – it can often lack subtlety.

RM: I don’t think it would ever be possible to actually really put Artaud’s ideas into practice. There is a sense that this plague metaphor is not really just a metaphor so it is something that is so violent and destructive. Yes we have the Tarahumaras and Balinese dance, and yes most would say his cruelty is not about violence, but Artaud’s theatre is in theory something that is violent and destructive. He was always writing about these apocalyptic scenarios. It is not possible to take it to the extreme that Artaud seemed to suggest.


  • The theatre should communicate with the audience through vibration like with snakes.
  • The audience is incorporated into the spectacle but almost against their will.
  • Lighting and sound tie in with the all engulfing, sensory experience.
  • Artaud writes about using all the latest technology: it should be spectacular.
  • It is not possible to take theatre to the extreme that Artaud seemed to suggest.