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Understanding Butoh

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Understanding Butoh

On Friday, September 30, dancer and choreographer Maureen Fleming will kick off the museum’s 2011–2012 VIVA! & Gala performing arts series with her highly anticipated performance piece Black Madonna.

Maureen Fleming

In addition to years of classical ballet training, Fleming studied extensively with the late Japanese dance icon Kazuo Ohno, and her unique style is deeply influenced by butoh, the avant-garde movement that Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata cofounded in 1960s Japan. The butoh movement was born in the aftermath of World War II in a country that had been ravaged by nuclear warfare.

Calling for Help, Okinawa by W. Eugene Smith

Originally known as ankoku butoh, or “dance of utter darkness,” butoh was a new type of modern dance that focused on mastery of the body, slow movement, and controlled fluidity, often performed in all-white body paint. Its two founders were survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Tatsumi Hijikata was only a teenager when the bombs were dropped, while the older Kazuo Ohno had been drafted and was serving in the Japanese army at the time. Developed in the wake of monumental tragedy, butoh often conveys painful, forbidden, or sinister emotions, and its dances can seem ghoulish and surreal. According to Fleming, butoh “explores the darkest side of human nature.” The first butoh performance is considered to be Hijikata’s 1959 staging of Kinjinki (Forbidden Colors), based on the novel by Yukio Mishima. This unconventio! nal, sexually explicit performance shocked audiences—some of those present even fainted—and introduced the world to a subversive new art form. Although many butoh performances share common themes and characteristics, the movement as a whole is difficult to specify. There are no set rules for practitioners of butoh to follow; rather, it is a movement that encourages innovation and constant boundary-pushing. In fact, one of butoh’s original goals was to abandon the constraints of both traditional Japanese and classical Western dance techniques, thereby giving choreographers and performers maximum freedom of expression and room for exploration.

Spring Dance Scene, attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu

As Fleming explained in a 2005 interview for The Arts Cure: “Butoh was conceived as an art that would continue to rebel, even to rebel against itself… it was conceived as an art that would not become an institutionalized form, but rather remain alive and vital, continuously reinvented by innovators inspired by it.” In keeping with the innovative spirit of butoh, Maureen Fleming has adapted the art form into a style that is all her own. As audience members will witness in her upcoming performance of Black Madonna, Fleming’s original, meditative choreography lends butoh a sense of beauty and grace that balances out its traditional dark side. -- Caroline Smith