"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" Anais Nin

“Ankoku Butoh” – an introduction to Dance of Darkness

Butoh – Dance of Darkness

Sankai Juku – kewego
Sankai Juku, compagnie de danseurs japonais

published in the site: id-dinja s-sabihathe beautiful word

The Japanese character for butoh consists of two elements:
bu – dance

toh – step

Literally: stamping dance.

For many people it is a stange kind of theatre. Not everybody considers it a dance form. The birth of this extraordenary dance lies in post-war Japan. To be precise: the performance of Kinjiki in 1959. It was a short piece, without music, and it raised a scandal. In the piece a young boy (Yoshito Ohno) enacted sex with a chicken by strangling it between his thighs. In the darkness that followed a man – Tatsumi Hijikata – approached the boy.
Since then butoh is called shocking, provocative, physical, spiritual, erotic, grotesque, violent, cosmic, nihilistic, cathartic, mysterious (1.)

The word Ankoku Butoh – later abbreviated to butoh – was introduced by Hijikata. It means Dance of Darkness. The best thing is to describe it as a mixture of elements of traditional Japanese theatre, Ausdrucktanz and mime. It breaks with the established (dance) rules and leaves much room for improvisation. Characteristics one often sees are the white painted bodies, the slow movements, the bold heads and contorted postures. The dance evokes images of decay, of fear and desparation, images of eroticism, ecstasy and stillness.

Butoh has undergone influences of the Ausdrucktanz. In the twenties a lot of Japanese dancers went to Gemany to study the european dance. Upon their return to Japan they founded ballet schools in which both Kazuo Ohno as Hijikata got their first lessons. Those two founding fathers of butoh met in 1954. It turned out to be the beginning of a co-operation for years. Hijikata would direct and choreograph many pieces for Ohno. Hijikata’s studio became the centre of the butoh movement, a movement with as many faces as there are dancers. There is an enormous difference between the aesthetic butoh of Sankai Juku and the raw, playfull and extreme formes one can see at Byakko-sha and Dance Love Machine.

But this history does not tell us why this dance is of so much impact. What is its role? What is its signifigance for theatre and dance?

The birth of the theatre can be traced back to ceremonies in which rituals play an important role. Rituals are the souls of the community where we encounter its values and moral codes. The history of dance shows us the declination of such rituals. Along with the narrative ballets there appeared the modern dance which became more and more abstract, more focussed on pure movement.
In the words of Grotowski butoh is the search for “a very ancient form of art where ritual and artistic creation were seamless. Where poetry was song, song was incantation, movement was dance.” (2.)
Butoh connects the conscious with the unconscious. Movement is not dictaded from the outside, but, appears in the interaction between the outer and inner world.

Some people say that the essence of butoh lies in the mechanism through which the dancers stops being himself and becomes someone or something else. This is a different conception of dance then the conventional where the body of the dancer expresses an emotion or abstract idea. For example, take the studying of a rooster. “The idea was to push out all of the human inside and let the bird take its place. You may start by imitating, but imitation is not your final goal; when you believe you are thinking completely like a chicken you have succeeded.” (3.) The important thing with this is not the transformation into a chicken, but the transformation itself, the fact that you change. Only in this way you can bring the body back to its original state – as Hijikata puts it. It is not depiction or symbolization which is the foundation of butoh. It is the metamorphosis.
According to Min Tanaka – who staged in 1994 Can We Dance A Landscape? in Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam – the typical butoh in the performance is not the white paint, the naked bodies or the open mouths, but, posing questions on the origin and meaning of dance. “It is not the question whether you can dance a landscape or use one in the dance. More important is the question: What is dance? You have to free yourself from the conventional definition of dance in order to extend it, closer to life itself. Can We Dance A Landscape? is in fact a search for the origins of dance.” (4.)

It is this search that gives butoh its strenght. Perhaps this enables us to bring our bodies back to their original state and reconcile us with ourselfs and with the world around us.


1. Bonnie Sue Stein in “Butoh : twenty years ago we were crazy, dirty and mad” The Drama Review 30 (1986) 2, 107-125.

2. Osinski, Zbigniew. “Grotowski blazes the trails : from objective drama to ritual arts” The Drama Review 35 (1991) 1 Spring, 95-112

3. Ojima Ichiro quoted in: Klein, Susan Blakely Ankoku buto : the premodern and postmodern influences on the dance of utter darkness. Ithaca (N.Y.): Cornell University, 1988, 97p. (Cornell East Asia Papers.)

4. Min Tanaka quoted in: Min Tanaka + Appel Programm notes of the performance Can We Dance A Landscape? Amsterdam: Het Muziektheater, 1994

This text is an adaptive version of an article originally published – in dutch – in DANS 12 (1994) nr. 6 (september), p. 22-23 © text and translation: Harmen Sikkenga

for further information about Butoh dance:

  • Butoh Net Open site in a new window – Includes an introduction, a list of performers and artists, and other resources.
  • BUTOH.jp Open site in a new window – Information on the Butoh dance of the Tomoe Shizune and Hakutobo dance groups. Includes interviews with the artists.
  • Butoh/Itto GooSeyTen Open site in a new window – Includes performance pictures, articles, FAQ, and books.
  • Kobo Buto Open site in a new window – Butoh: dance of darkness; history of butoh, activities of kobo buto, butoh links.
  • Kyoko88% Open site in a new window – Japanese theatrical costume designer; mainstay of work is for Butoh.
  • Sakamoto, Michael Open site in a new window – Performer and interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles, as well as a soloist in the Rachel Rosenthal Company.
  • Thormann, Imre Open site in a new window – Performs and teaches Butoh in Japan and Europe.
  • World of Butoh Dance Open site in a new window – Includes information about events, groups, including DaiRakudaKan and GooSayTen; also legendary performers suchs as Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo.

you also watch a short review about Hijikata Tatsumi, the founder of butoh:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s