Arts News: KC Meets the Challenging Art of Butoh

Erdin Schultz-Bever in a Confluence Theatre Butoh performance (photo by Michael Strong)

Butoh is an honored art form little known and understood beyond its circle of adherents. It’s hard to describe, hard to process and hard to practice.

That might be changing. Kansas City is home to a small but passionate Butoh community, and plans are afoot to broaden its reach.

During the past three years at Kansas City Fringe, the two-week extravaganza of theater/music/written word/comedy/circus performances held annually in July, Confluence Theatre has offered a one-hour, full-on Butoh display. Audiences have been entranced, shocked, mystified, alienated, turned on and turned off — anything but neutral.

That comes as no surprise to Logan Black, the founder of Confluence Butoh (the company also creates and produces Shakespeare plays); there’s always someone who walks out, he says.

Butoh, Japanese “bu” for dance, “toh” for step, encompasses dance, movement, acting, improvisation and meditation in a style that is uncompromisingly dark, upsetting and seemingly nihilistic. It can be summed up as the “Beauty of Ugliness” or “Beautiful Chaos.”

Butoh emerged from the devastation of post-World War II Japan and is widely understood to represent opposition to the westernization of the country and a horror of the destruction caused by the atomic bombs. It was created in the late 1950s by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010), who individually wished to forego classic dance and forge a new movement.

Hijikata’s vocabulary of movement, including hunched and bow-legged positions, has been tied to the diseased and malnourished bodies of the poor farm workers he saw growing up. Ohno practiced Neue Tanz, a dance form which originated with German Expressionism. Both Hijikata and Ohno rejected classic elements of grace and form. In Butoh, animistic beliefs were strongly in evidence, the body remained close to the ground, and beings representing death and the subconscious were prevalent. It is often seen more as performance art than dance.

One might justifiably question the appeal of such a disturbing endeavor, but practitioners of Butoh find it enlightening, empowering and ultimately life changing. Buddhistic in its embrace of our fears and failures, it fosters presence and self-realization.

Black — many may remember his exceptional one-man play “Bond” about his military service dog — was first introduced to Butoh in 2001 as a BFA student at the University of Utah. Smitten, he took the course over and over, finally becoming an instructor himself. He furthered his studies in Japan under Butoh masters. More than 20 years later he’s still seeking and studying.

Upon first witnessing Butoh, Confluence co-founder R.H. Wilhoit, known locally for his brilliant portrayals of Edgar Allen Poe, remembers thinking, “I could never do this.” But Butoh’s challenges grabbed him just as it did Black. He found the linking of the imagination to physical expression to be exhilarating and illuminating.

The participants of the three Fringe shows agree that the contortions, the grotesque gestures, movements, facial expressions, and sometimes masks, allow them, in Black’s words, to “push through a physical boundary or maybe an emotional one.” Rehearsals involve long meditative and interpretational exercises and usually end, as Wilhoit says, with “weak smiles and tears streaming down.”

A Butoh performance has a set beginning and end with the middle left to the dancers’ improvisation. A typical production includes shaved heads and bodies ghostlike in white paint.

They look “nasty, wonderfully alien,” “decaying as they move,” in Wilhoit’s words. The actors are freed to link their imaginations to their physical selves. They find bravery and acceptance of failure. In a review of the most recent Butoh performance, “Dreaming Machine,” Karen Staehling highlighted its “dreamlike atmosphere” and admired the way it was able to “draw in the audience, offering a rich, thought-provoking experience.”

Black sees a growing appetite for this movement and philosophy; Confluence enjoys a hearty following with many requests for involvement.

Black and Wilhoit held their first Butoh workshop in September. If the demand is there, in coming months they plan to offer more workshops as well as intensive Butoh classes that require no dancing or acting experience. And they are already planning the fourth Fringe production.

“By the nature of the performance, the story is left up to each individual audience member (and performer).” It’s almost “choose your own adventure,” Black said.

Butoh’s sensory overload renders it compelling and therapeutic. It “shines a light on the unknown blank spaces of our mind” and propels us to “tap into the resistance within ourselves,” Black explained. “We all have some darkness inside us. Butoh wants us to confront that.”

For more information and videos, go to confluencetheatre.com or its Facebook page.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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