Liberating steps

Liberating steps

Abstract movements

Liberating steps

The performers’ bodies and faces were awash with white paint; over a playlist of contemporary and classical music, and a period of no music, they contorted their bodies in slow-motion to form grotesque movements — awry neck twists, a slouch, a crouch, a signature zombie pose.

They collapsed on the wooden floor at times, the abrupt sideway fall, a recurring feature in their performance. Their facial expressions were the combination of exaggeration — a mime of ghastly laughter, a smirk, eyes that threatened to fall out of the sockets — and the stoic. 

These are a few characteristics of Butoh, a dance-theatre first developed in Japan. And at Shoonya Centre for Art and Somatic Practices, Bengaluru recently, it was performed by an all-woman group as the finale of a workshop guided by the Serbian performance artiste, Kristian Al-Droubi. 

Philosophy of dance

The rugged 37-year-old, introducing Butoh to the audience, explained that “it is not by itself a dance form, but a way of life, a philosophical thought, a way of sculpting the body and the mind”.

Referring to the performance’s dark nature, he assured the audience that Butoh could get “much more raw and brutal, and have entered spaces where other traditional dance forms don’t usually go.” During the Q & A session with the performers, one of them exclaimed that her transformation was into a pillar and experiencing the weight the pillar carried. Yet another, exhausted, couldn’t wait to get the acrylic white paint off the skin!

The break-up of Butoh is bu meaning ‘to dance’, and toh meaning to stomp the ground — once a traditional dance ritual performed to celebrate Japanese harvest. But when World War II devastated the nation, it took a raw and a dark turn as a performance art, as artistes started expressing their thoughts and feelings through it. “There were even suicide attempts on the stage; movements have been inspired by lepers, too.” added Kristian.

“The founders of Butoh — Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno — began developing the dance form in the 1960s, in two new directions. Hijikata was more into the raw, wild and unknown form; while Ohno followed the dance of the emotions. Lots of giving oneself to the audience.”

For example, Hijikata’s 10-min solo performance titled Kinjiki, based on the 1953-novel of the same name, which discussed the life of a homosexual person, shocked the audience with its bold, suggestive movements, bringing it rejection from the dance community in Japan. Ohno’s solo Butoh work, La Argentina Sho (Admiring La Argentina), directed by Hijikata, and premiered in 1977, was a tribute to Antonia Mercé, a famous Spanish dancer, who inspired Ohno’s desire to dance. It got the artiste much repute in Europe.

“No art form can remain by itself for long,” said Kristian, “and so Butoh has been contemporised across the West, and remains a popular dance form in Europe as well.”

Ten years old to Butoh, Kristian first came by a performance in Belgrade (Serbian capital) by Katsura Kan, a Japanese Butoh exponent, from whom he learnt its rigorous techniques. “There is always the element of unusual when working with another culture. But somehow, Butoh not only had strangeness, it had new energy and approach toward movement and dance. When I watched his performance, I realised we could radiate messages through movements, not just see. Butoh goes to places where things are not so clear, things are hidden. The themes could be qualities like strength, flight, darkness and light. So my being went there. Also, in Europe people are more relaxed, and perhaps crave for some discipline. And Butoh is built on certain discipline. Like, some teachers ask the performers to keep their food intake to a minimum as a show is approaching, because some of them require the show of ribcages,” he recalled.

Fact & form

While costumes for Butoh could cover heavy clothes, or just decoration strings, or even nudity, the constant feature is the white paint. “When they started Butoh in Japan, they used white to erase individuality. It’s a symbol of we, rather than I, as performers. I also like the idea of erasing ‘I’ as a person, and just having the body on stage.”

For Anuja Ghosalkar, an actor based in Bengaluru who has taken time off to reflect on the feedback she has received on her latest solo project, Butoh came in the form of liberation. “From any sort of text. As an actor, my relationship with text is heavy. Butoh is free of it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and here I can talk for myself. Butoh is more abstract; theatre can be quite literal. And, it was a challenge to work with dancers as an actor, because our relationship to our bodies is different,” she said.

Contemporary dancer Jyotsna Rao likes that Butoh allows her to understand her  movements over time. “Like, the whole movement is stretched. The silence and time give me an opportunity to create my own narrative. That’s interesting for me as a dancer. Performing doesn’t have to be frontal, you can go deep into the unconscious and see what’s coming up for you, and see how that can be expressed in movement,” she said.

Kristian’s curiosity is at its peak to understand how the physical dance-theatre could impact and evolve here. “There is a strict ideology about correspondence between bodies here. Less touching, less hugging. It will be interesting to note the reactions.”

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