Get to Know Butoh

Somatic exploration is kind of our thing.  Not our’s exclusively, that’s not what we mean.  It’s just that we’re obsessed with the exploratory journey our bodies can take us on.  Dance is an obvious form of the body’s expression in this journey, but Butoh takes that odyssey to a place of complete focus on connecting the body-mind.  Before you take a look at the videos here’s a quick background on the Japanese dance:

Butoh is the collective name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

Now that you have a quick context in which to put this enjoy (maybe) the performance of one of the co-founder’s Kazuo Ohno:

Here’s a more recent performance (Melissa’s favorite):

These videos are by no means an exhaustive representation of all that Butoh can be or how it can be performed, but it is meant to whet you appetite.  It’s easy to be thrown off by the creepy and even grotesque aspects of the art form.  But those elements are critical  to the performance and the expression of what might be repressed or socially unacceptable emotion in the body; so try to stick with it.  What is particularly entrancing is to see the somatic and kinistethic awareness the Butoh dancers have.  It is that awareness that fuels the dance.  Unlike much of the dance we are exposed to in Western culture, Butoh is not so much concerned with creating a shape or making the body look a certain way, but it is about connecting to the body on the physical, emotional and mental plains.  Seeking and exploring that connection is reflected in the dancers’ bodies and then manifests as the external/physical performance.

It’s not hard to understand then how Butoh is being used as a psychosomatic tool of “exploration and integration.”  A paper entitled, A Butoh Dance Method for Psychosomatic Exploration (1999), explains the benefit of the dance for the purposes of linking body and mind for therapeutic assistance.  To extract a few salient points:

  • A basic idea of Noguchi Taiso is that our body is not a skeleton with muscles and flesh on it, but a  kind of water bag in which our bones and viscera are floating…  ‘Muscles exist not for resisting and governing the gravity. Muscles are the ears for listening to the words of God – Gravity.’ (Principles laid out by this famous Japanese body worker and founder of Noguchi Taiso, Michizo Noguchi, heavily influence the training of Butoh dancers.  In fact there are many comparisons of this form of body work to the more easily recognized Alexander Technique here in the West.)
  • Butoh dancers pay much attention to their breathing and so influenced bodily or visceral subtle reactions.
  • Some Butoh dancers have given Butoh dance lessons in mental hospitals, and the psychological studies have reported its effectiveness for patients’ recovery.
  • It enables people to live their own naturally arising emotions such as anger, depression, sorrow, fear, joy, etc. – the suppressed emotions that are socially thought to be
    unwelcome under certain circumstances – by actually occurring bodily reactions of spasm, unintentional jerks, tremor, facial or bodily distortion, falling down, stamping, rolling on the floor, and so on.

We talk a lot about injuries and physical health on this blog, but movement is a tool that can be used to help emotional and mental health, which can manifest as physical injuries.  The paper goes into detail about the physical characteristics of the dance that assist with psychosomatic exploration.  It’s a fantastic read! The major take away from all this is that there is real value for allowing the body to express from the inside out without any regard for the shape it is making (obviously as long as the shapes that result are safe ones for that person’s body).   This philosophy hits home for us, because we believe that there is value in connecting with certain parts or systems of the body-mind and to then allow that process of connecting lead you into to movement–especially in a yoga class.  This is a departure from the typical modern yoga class that is a sequence with particular asana as the end goal.  Now a really good yoga teacher can still help students focus on the process instead of the end goal even in traditional yoga classes.  But we could start using  philosophies of somatic exploration like the one presented in Butoh and help take this idea in a yoga class to a whole other level.

Ask yourself in your next class: What if the shape you made no longer mattered?  What if it was all about how you got there? How would this affect your physical, emotional and mental bodies (which are all connected)?

If you do start to explore this idea we would love for people to share and leave comments!