Directors Ximena Garnica and Jeff Janisheski faced many challenges in organizing the first New York Butoh Festival, the least of which was giving it a name. With a board of curators and other assistants, they’ll launch the event October 11 at the CAVE Gallery in Williamsburg, and then offer five days of performances and workshops in the East Village. They’ve been planning for two years, promoting an international dance form still largely associated with its Japanese roots, with a name many performers reject. They laugh as they explain that about half of the participants in the festival don’t consider themselves butoh dancers.
“Some people will say, ‘You guys are not Japanese,’ and ‘How can a Latino do a butoh festival?’ ” says Garnica, who emigrated from Colombia in 1998 and will appear in a performance. “I’m an exiled person. I haven’t been in my country for five years. I don’t need to be Japanese. I don’t need to be Latino, either.”
According to Janisheski, they used the word butoh because it’s something audiences know, even if it leads to disagreements about definition, tradition, and authenticity. “It is an amorphous term, and has been since the beginning,” he says. “It was about anti-technique, anti-Western tradition.”
Butoh was founded in the 1950s by Tatsumi Hijikata, who drew inspiration from the movements of farmers in his village and memories of being carried in a basket as a young child, with his legs bound so he couldn’t crawl out. In the aftermath of World War II, Hijikata and fellow artists Kazuo Ohno, Akira Kasai, Akaji Maro, and Min Tanaka danced in the streets and in the ruins of destroyed buildings, unadvertised and without an audience, wearing makeup and sometimes little or no clothing, and facing arrest for their performances.
Dancers find in the butoh tradition an extreme use of the body, remarkable muscle control, and the opportunity to plumb personal memories and portray physical anguish. The word butoh has been translated in different ways, such as “dance of darkness” or “dance of the other,” but was first used by Hijikata, who called his dance “onkoku butoh,” borrowing the term butoh from a word that referred to Western social dancing, a sort of “other” against Japanese traditions of highly formalized dance.
“What Hijikata did was to try to find the condition of the body you cannot control,” says Yoko Shioya, acting director for performing arts at the Japan Society. She likens butoh movement to the way muscles tense up when you walk against the wind. Butoh focuses on the inconveniences, uncontrollability, and unwillingness of the body, she says. “You see a lot of ugly form, from the point of view of the generally ‘beautiful’ body. It is sometimes awkward or twisted. You have to look deep inside yourself. Butoh people tended to say that they were the only people to look inside deeply, but that is too arrogant, I think.”
Westerners, she adds, often make the mistake of thinking that butoh was a direct expression of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While those atrocities were a part of the inspiration, equally important were the difficult lives many Japanese lived under Emperor Hirohito.
In recent years, actors and dancers around the world have adopted butoh’s expression of strife and crisis.
“Good butoh is about primal honesty and coming in touch with some crisis in your country or in your life,” says Janisheski, a candidate for a master’s degree in theater directing at Columbia, who has studied, performed, and taught butoh since 1989, including work with Ohno. “My crisis came when my father died. That was my moment of butoh. And certainly New York these days has experienced a lot of crisis.”
The festival features dancers from Japan, Sweden, and the U.S. Seattle-based Joan Laage offers magical and darkly humorous work that plays with our hopes, expectations, and fears. Yukio Waguri, one of Japan’s butoh masters, says his mission is to present “what is specifically Japanese and what is internationally common in butoh.” SU-EN, from Sweden, performs her multimedia work, Slice: Visceral Dissection, a stark, uncompromising piece that portrays the body’s own beauty, brutality, and absurdity. Opening for her will be Chisato Katata, from the Tokyo-based group Shinonome.
Dancer Zack Fuller rejects the butoh label. He sang in a speed-metal band in D.C. in the ’90s, then spent some time acting before finding dance, working since 1997 with Tanaka (who also doesn’t call his work butoh), and finding his own form, which he has referred to as “post-mortem dance.”
“I wanted to be an actor, but all the actors I knew didn’t want to be doing theater, they wanted to promote themselves so they could do movies and TV,” he says. “But the dance scene was very supportive, like the hardcore scene. I didn’t want to wait until I could master a form to do something. I trained my body a lot, but I spent a lot of time in a studio training myself.”
Fuller, with percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and accordionist Jonathan Vincent, will show “a grotesque, comic-scary work that deals with the stripping away of character, and the construction-destruction of personality,” according to his program notes. As with much of Fuller’s work, it will likely involve slow, unnerving movement, eliciting the combination of sympathy and disgust that one might feel toward a person who lives on the street. It won’t look strictly Japanese, but will draw from American sources, a common approach scoffed at by purists.
For Garnica, the only way people can approach performing butoh is from their own life and experience. “Our bodies are shaped by social and cultural traditions,” she says. “If you are from the royalty, you walk one way. A peasant walks another way. If you are in an office eight hours a day and you go out and forget your cell phone, you feel it. Our bodies are shaped by objects. We’re all humans, that’s the bottom line.”
The festival, which the pair hopes to make a regular, if not an annual, occurrence, includes performances at Theater for the New City and workshops and lectures around the city. It’s a labor of love, Garnica says, with little financial support. Corporate sponsors have donated food and drink for receptions, but the actual operating budget came from a single patron, whom they hope to repay with ticket sales. “We almost didn’t do it because we didn’t have grants, but we said, ‘Let’s just do it third world-style.’ “