"all nerves of the universe"

"Butoh defies description." [3]

butoh is a Japanese dance form created in the 1950/60s by two dancers: Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. An aesthetic form of avant-garde movement, "a dance (bu) step (toh) that challenged and extended both Western dance, Kabuki and Not theatre of that period". [1]

"The kanji, or chinese characters for Butoh is comprise of mau 舞 (denoting a refined dance with the hands), and fumu 踏 (signifying a pounding of the feet). The original form of the character mau was mu 無. Nowadays, this character means "nothing, but it originally signified a ritual dance performed in a costume with decorated sleeves. Its meaning later changed when the particle indicating the shape of the legs and feet in motion was added to form the character mau as it is employed today. The second kanji 踏 (fumu), also has magical connotations. Composed of the pictorial elements for a foot 足 and water 水 placed above an instrument 具 used in rituals it signifies the pouring of water on a ritualistic instrument to reduce its power. Pounding the feet also played an important part in these ritual dances." [2]

Movement Vocabulary

"It is fruitful to think of Hijikata and his fellow artists as seeking to alter the existing sign systems and create new technologies of the self, in order to combat an age in which forms of power were trying to adjust the body to new forms of production." And in this case it is not possible to separate Foucault’s idea of a technology self from the technology of the sight system, because the body was "Hijikata’s sign system. Hijikata sought to expand the language of the body by finding new source for movements and by subjecting the new movement to further operations.." [3]

Many Butoh choreographers, influenced by Hijikata’s approach to movement, make use of highly specific images-language to refine the dancer’s senses and develop a dancing body that can transform itself. This is facilitated by the "development of a perceptive neural network through the careful management of the 'relations' between the body and the image (*). The 'walk' and 'choreographic forms' are designed as training for this. The neural network might be considered the key to Hikikata’s philosophy of mind, body and universe. It is accessible through an analysis of the 'walks', 'choreographic forms', 'phrases' and 'etudes', which are notated in the record of his dancers." [3] This notation, or circuit (from language-to-image and image-to-body) facilitates the embodiment and the conditions of 'becoming' a body within Butoh.

(*) "What we call 'images' in Butoh are not purely visual phenomena. They need to be considered for all their sensual and textural qualities, such as sound, temperature, motion, shape or taste" [France Barbe 2011:133]

The body that becomes nothing

"Whereas the Ankoku Butoh style that derived from Hijikata emphasizes the systematic construction of a specific universe, a formalized world and a particular gestural quality, there is another, almost diametrically oposed tendency, based on improvisation and the free expression of an inner universe.." [5]

Regardless of more or less strict choreographic system being applied, in Butoh there is always a strong sense of openess for the unknown (≠ improvisation?). One moves before one’s knows "…a way to stimulate the emergence of something new, or as a means of rousing their imagination to draw previously unseen connection, and thus to uncover or happen upon something beyond preexisting conventions." [3]

To allow for the unknown to happen, the body needs to highly receptive to its surroundings. In a state of continual emptiness, ready to embrace the world: "A dancing vessel, or a vessel that invites dance in. Either way this vessel must maintain a state of continual emptiness. When filled to excess, naturally (..) the vessels overflows, becomes empty. (..) The body continues to move". [1]

In "becoming nothing", constantly metamorphosing, the body is concentrating all nerves on the universe.

One of the aims of Hijikata was to create and observe interactions and confrontations between disparate elements, it is possible to see him and other Butoh artists as responding to that world of increasing but incomplete information. As well as information of varying strengths by developing ways to be attentive to all sides of an interaction, developing ways to cope with either an overload or lack of information.

Dealing with excessive or insufficient information — perhaps our most contemporary paradigm.


[1] Tamah L. Nakamura, T.L. (2007). Beyond performance in Japanese Butoh Dance: embodying re-creation of self and social identities.
[2] Barrett, J., Ohno, Y. and Ohno, K. (2004). Kazuo Ohno's world from without and within. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.
[3] Baird, B. (2016). Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
[4] Lushetich, N. (2016). Interdisciplinary performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
[5] Viala, J. (1988). Butoh Shades Of Darkness. Tokyo: Shufunotomo Co.
Waguri, Yukio (2011) Archive of Movements – Extra Version. Transformation of the Body(DVD) Arts Center, Keio University, Tokyo


This research project has been developed under the supervision of akihiro kubota.
A great thank you to the Art and Science and International Research Department at Tama Art University.

Thank you motimaru dance company for connecting me with the other side of the world, where dancers move in darkness, to bring us light.

A special thank you to Kimiko Watanabe for our interesting conversations on Butoh, at Shy, and for having me introduced to the inspiring words of ko.

Thank you Mina Mizohata from kazuo ohno dance studio and the kazuo ohno dance archive. And thank you Sensei Yoshio Ohno for showing me his spiritual journey through Butoh and the Buddhist saying: "" 色即是空 空即是色 " (shikisokuzekū-kūsokuzeshiki) "Existence cannot be without nothingness, and nothingness cannot be without existence”/ "Existence is nothingness and nothingness is existence" (Shiki or shikisoku I think means existence and kū is nothingness).

Another thank you to keio archive.

Last but no least, thank you to all choreographers who have shared their viewpoints on Butoh and danced together with me: mutsumi + neiro, yuri nagaoka 長岡ゆり and seisaku 正朔, kudo taketeru,natsu nakajima, yuri suzuki.

For reference, two relevant venues for Butoh performances in Tokyo include: plan b and cypress studio and regular performances by dairakudakan (at various locations).