The instructor is down on his knees, peering between my legs, licking his lips like a pervert. “You’re a woman,” he tells me, “naked from the waist down, walking across a glass floor. Everyone is watching you from below.” As I walk mindfully across the room, he commands me not to act, but to be the ekisu, or essence, of that woman. I’m at a butoh dance workshop run by Seisaku and his partner, Yuri Nagaoka, in the tatami room of a community center in a residential district of Tokyo. Ekisu is a word I hear a lot at these workshops. The same goes for those run by the butoh group Dairakudakan, thirty minutes across town. There we are asked to become, among other things, the ekisu of kabuki actors portrayed in ukiyoe paintings. We freeze into positions, intensifying our expressions as the instructor vocalizes the sound of a jet engine winding up.
Butoh is Japan’s best-known contribution to modern dance, and even those who don’t know the word are probably familiar with the typical butoh form: a dancer, nude except for a fundoshi (loin cloth) and white body paint, usually with a shaved head. Developed in the 1950s, butoh still manages to surprise. My first experience of it was sometime in the mid-1990s, at a performance by the Vancouver group Kokoro Dance. My initial attraction was to the spectacle, or even gimmickry, of dancers emerging from a bath of mud, twitching and making other movements unfamiliar to me as dance.
In practice, butoh feels something like a combination of modern dance, Zen meditation, and yoga. Butoh workshops always contain an element of body awareness, usually imagining the body as an empty bag, animated from within by a variety of items beautiful, ugly, and neutral: fireflies, worms, and ball bearings. At the Dairakudakan workshops we crawl on all fours and are asked to imagine ingesting a steel ball through our anus, shooting it out through our mouth. We work with partners, directing our movements by pulling one another with imaginary strings, using our breath to blow one another into positions.
Through seven weeks of butoh practice in Tokyo, I came to understand the form less as a spectacle, and more as a spiritual endeavour. Indeed, “spirituality” is what I was told to expect from Yoshito Ohno’s workshop at his hillside studio in Yokohama. Ohno has been a butoh dancer for most of his life, and in his youth performed with Tatsumi Hijikata, considered the founder of butoh along with Ohno’s father, Kazuo. On the day we attend the workshop, it is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and with little instruction we are asked to dance a meditation on the suffering caused by wars – all wars. We hold roses, dance with tissue paper, and stretch raw silk as we contemplate a number of different relationships we have in the world. There is, as I was told, “spirituality” and a gentle openness to Ohno’s workshop, and the visit feels like a kind of pilgrimage.
Openness is a characteristic of any butoh workshop I’ve attended – but openness, in butoh, is part of a dichotomy with vulnerability. Clearly, it takes guts to become, in a public setting, the essence of fireflies or pant-less women; to improvise a dance comprised only of twitches; or to contort your face like an ukiyoe kabuki character. That’s why butoh is not for anyone fearing extreme challenges to emotional comfort and personal space. That’s why even Dairakudakan – described by some (mistakenly, I believe) as a kind of Bikram’s of butoh – will never fill stadiums like Cirque du Soleil. But it’s also why, as a friend and I decide over a post-workshop lunch, anyone you meet at a butoh workshop probably has a really good ekisu.