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.


World Theatre Traditions – Rakugo

Extracts from Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque by Sasaki Miyoko and Morioka Heinz

“Although many stories have been adapted from written sources. rakugo can be considered a genuine form of oral art because its principal route of transmission down to us has been through the lips of the performers. To this day there are no written manuals or librettos containing the full text of a performance or of the way a story has to be presented. There is mainly oral transmission from master to pupil. Written notes to help in memorization or tape recordings are frowned upon. Through long years of personal association with his teacher, listening to his performance from backstage, and living as an apprentice in his home, the student devotes his attention to mastering the stories.”

“The sense of reality is maintained throughout the story, and shared by performer and audience alike. Drawing freely on his personal experience, the performer styles his own individual pre- amble or “pillow” (makura t) for his story, selecting among con- temporary events, the weather, or work, whatever topics he feels his audience might be interested in. When he enters into the story itself, then his hero, in a curious and sudden shift of time dimen- sion, leaps out of the setting of an old tale right into the present moment and confronts the audience. Here, if the storyteller clumsily tries to evoke laughter in an obvious way, the effect will amount to nothing more than crowd-pleasing titillation, and his story may fall flat. But the expert performer can bridge the time gap smoothly and without a hitch, drawing the audience along with him into the world of classical rakugo.”

“The rakugo performer must organize his story in a new way each time, but if he is to remain within the confines of classical tradition, he is forced to observe certain definite rules. Throughout several centuries of rakugo the main plots of the stories and the heroes’ names have not changed. In the organization and minute descriptive details of episodes, with each performance, each year, and each generation, a great variety of different nuances and changes have appeared. No story can ever be performed twice in exactly the same way.”

“Changes in scene of a story are described by onomatopoetic words and sounds; for example, the ringing of a temple-bell, bon-bon; the clatter of wooden clogs, karan-koron; the sound of the wind, pyiu u u u; rolling of stones, gara-gara; or noise in the background, di-di, go-go. Onomatopoetic insertions can extend over a period of more than one minute, when they describe such movements as slow walking, tata tata…, tsun tsun …; running, sai-sai koro-sai, e-sa-sa, sowa- sowa, chowa-chowa; walking with heavy baggage on one’s shoulders, wasshoi-wasshoi…, or the sounds of work and play, kachi-kachi, pachi-pachi, pochi-pochi, poka-poka, potsu-potsu, sara-sara; or heavy exertion, hora-yo, sora-yo,yosshoi.”

“The rakugo performer is not supposed to change his position once he takes a seat on the stage. But merely by the movement of the upper half of his body he represents all kinds of actions. Walking from one place to another is expressed by one of the most amusing gesture formulas of rakugo: the performer withdraws his hands into the wide sleeves of his kimono, his knees, hips, and shoulders sway rhythmically, and he talks to himself in a murmuring voice, as if lost in thought. The audience knows that a person is on his way to an- other place; they also know that he will suddenly be startled out of his thoughts by an unexpected event, and they anxiously wait for that moment.”

“The focal point of the rakugo story is the world of everyday. Many of its cast of characters strut about dressed in sundry garb and historical costumes, but they are part of the storyteller’s world and the world of his audience. From there the rakugo performer takes the models which he fits into various stereotypes according to class and profession: the feudal lord, the military man, the priest, the scholar, the retired head of the house, the working-class man, the farmer. At times the principal characters are complete outsiders that do not fit into ordinary societal roles: the cheapskate, the thief, the liar, or the prostitute. Sometimes it is just the simpleton, the lazy- bones, the miser, the boozer, and the conniver that pass across the imaginary rakugo stage. There are, of course, no detailed portrayals of people as individuals. This is the major difference between rakugo and pure literature. While there are instances where a character is provided with a definite personality, there are practically no examples of that personality changing as the story develops.”

Miyoko, S., & Heinz, M. (1981). Rakugo: Popular Narrative Art of The Grotesque. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 41(2), 417-459. doi:10.2307/2719050

World Theatre Traditions – Kathakali

Eugenio Barba introducing Kathakali

On the southern coast of India, the three-hundred-year-old Kathakali ritual theatre still flourishes, a mixture of dance and pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition.

The plays describe extraordinary events involving gods, demons, and legendary characters. They all have one common characteristic: good and the gods always triumph over evil and the demons. The actor acts out the struggle between good and evil exclusively through the motions of his body, and the subjects of the plays are as well known to the audience as the myths of the Greek trilogies were to the Athenians.

Through his gestures and his mimicry, the Kathakali actor recreates the atmosphere and the action of the drama while describing to the audience the action’s locale. His technique is much closer to the Chinese opera than to the European mime or ballet, which tells a story through a direct or “exoteric” technique. In the Oriental ballet, on the contrary, a cipher is used. Each gesture, each little motion is an ideogram which writes out the story and can be understood only if its conventional meaning is known. The spectator must learn the language, or rather the alphabet of the language, to understand-what the actor is saying. This alphabet of signs is complex. There are nine motions of the head, eleven ways of casting a glance, six motions of the eyebrows, four positions of the neck. The sixty-four motions of the limbs cover the movements of the feet, toes, heels, ankles, waist, hips-in short, all the flexible parts of the body. The gestures of the hands and fingers have a narrative function and they are organized in a system of fixed figures called mudras (“signs” in Sanskrit). Those mudras are the alphabet of the acting “language.”

The face expresses the emotions of the actor. If he is terror-struck, he raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs lathis nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions. To express paroxysmal rage, his eyebrows quiver, his lower eyelids rise on his eyes, his gaze becomes fixed and penetrating, his nostrils and lips tremble, his jaws are clamped tight, and he stops breathing to bring about a change in his physiognomy. There are sets of facial motions to express not only feelings and emotions, but traits of character of a more permanent nature, such as generosity, pride, curiosity, anxiety in the face of death, etc. However, the actor does not rely exclusively on prearranged mechanical gestures to express emotions. He cannot reach his audience unless his own imagination and motions come into play. The old masters of the Kathakali have a rule which says:

“Where the hands go to represent an action, there must go the eyes; where the eyes go, there must go the mind, and the action pictured by the hands must beget a specific feeling which must be reflected on the actor’s face.”

From this rule we can see that the face is the emotional counterpart of the story told, not by somebody else, but by the actor’s own hands. In short, there is a double structure: the actor must resort simultaneously to two different sets of technique to express the two complementary aspects of a story, the narrative and the emotional. His hands “tell” the former, while his face expresses the latter.

Barba, E., & Sanzenbach, S. (1967). The Kathakali Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11(4), 37-50. doi:10.2307/1125137

Tadg O’Keefe introducing Kathakali

Katahkali Training

Kathakali Facial Expressions

The future of Kathakali?

The BBC’s Megha Mohan went to a now-closed traditional Kathakali school, one that gave birth to its own style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta: