Butoh as De-Self-Isation

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

I wonder how we can become less selfish, a sort of de-self-isation. There’s a lot of pressure for every individual to be “me” and to claim whatever one is entitled to. But if we can be one with the universe, I know it sounds cliché but it’s like not really go to the front but recede and go to the back. Go from your back to the wall behind. Go up to the ceiling and come back here to the opposite wall and circulate. It is a very concrete dance awareness too, the space awareness. Rather than you become the center of the space and dominating it, but let this whole thing balance and be rich in.

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Angela Conquet in Conversation with Takao Kawaguchi


Angela: I could not start by not talking “About Kazuo Ohno”,  because this is how Australian audiences got to know you more recently. Dancehouse presented “About Kazuo Ohno” in 2017 as part of the inaugural ASIATOPA. With this work, you literally and unashamedly copy Kazuo Ohno from video recordings exclusively including some of his masterpieces, such as “Admiring La Argentina”, “My Mother and Dead Sea”, “Ghost”, “Wienerwaltz”. Butoh is so much about interiority. It is so viscerally linked to the body of the performer that you have said yourself, it is quite a task even in copying its works.

Takao: Butoh is known as art of the body, and the movement has to come from the interiority. The pinnacle of this is Kazuo Ohno who says that the dance has to be led by the soul. Not the techniques, not the forms, but only the soul and life within you is what matters. Copying his movements from the video is the opposite of what he advocates for (the dance of soul). My hypothesis was: if I can copy his movements, can I copy his soul? Can soul be copied at all? I don’t think I have the answer, I will never find the answer. But this contradiction or this paradox, whatever we may want to call it, I thought it was interesting. This is why I kept trying.

What Kazuo Ohno did was full of emotion. You can see and you can feel whatever he was doing and whatever soul he had. It really resonates with ours. But in copying, I tried not to go in that direction. I didn’t want to know what he was feeling because if you approach things through emotion, then the form will blur and evaporate. That was not my intention. I did some formal research but I wanted to forget about his philosophy or spiritual background. I only focused on the form and what you can see on the videotape.

When this piece premiered in Tokyo, it was quite a scandal, because you’ve never danced with him, you’ve never seen him live. You have always said that you are not part of that scene. What you said you were doing with this piece was that it is more like a re-enactment of Ohno’s dances. That ultimately, you pre-form a vision of his dances. Obviously, and you say it yourself, you wanted to wear this copy as an armour. By doing that, you discovered some space in copying the original. That actually made it possible for you to become the author. So, therefore, this work in a way is an original.

I didn’t have any agenda, I didn’t represent the community. I was nothing, not even a Butoh-ist. I simply tried to copy whatever I could see from the video and I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t have any goal, except for copying and moving. I knew that would upset a lot of people, especially the Butoh-minded people. But I knew that would make good publicity too. People started talking, what is he doing? He doesn’t know anything about Butoh. How dare he say that he copies the dance of Kazuo Ohno? I was nervous and I thought I would be punched for doing that.

When I was making the work, I didn’t know whether this performance was going to be interesting. I didn’t know what could drive this piece. The initial motivation, the initial reason why I wanted to do this was to do something about Kazuo Ohno because I wanted to learn about this interiority. I wanted to look into the inside of my body and not the outside, not the relationship between body and space. So I thought Kazuo Ohno would be the best model for that to follow. Then my colleague Naoto Iina said, “Why not start with copying his dance?”

So we decided to start by copying for a month and then, let’s go to see Yoshito Ohno, the son of Kazuo Ohno, and a couple of other Butoh artists to see if they approved of the attempt. Actually, it took me more than one month to learn only half of that song. I was so grateful, however, that Yoshito Ohno and all the Ohno family, including his producer and his wife, approved and encouraged me. 

One of Ohno’s disciples, Yasuhiko Takeuchi, said to me: “No matter how hard, how well you work at copying, there will be always this little margin that you cannot fill. You stick out or you don’t reach with the image of the Kazuo Ohno. If you really work hard, this minimum gap, he said, represents you.” This was like a revelation for me. Okay, I thought, I will try to erase myself and dedicate myself to be cast in the mould of Kazuo Ohno. Then, only then, it will become me.

In an interview you said, talking about this process: 

“First of all, in order to become something, one ought to empty oneself. In the process of rehearsing, I thought without reading of myself and offering my body as an empty vessel for “it” to come and inhabit within, I wouldn’t be able to become it. I can do nothing else but process loyally, copying and building the form, the vessel and wait for it to inhabit my body.”

Then, of course, reading this, I went back to the famous theory that Butoh is always about becoming. But it’s also the dance of the soul. Do you think you’ve found your soul in this process? Have you analysed or looked at what you have become in this process with inhabiting this work?

 Of course, I have found my soul, I would like to think that. I would like to say that I have found one or it or the soul. But what’s happening during the performance, what’s happening inside me, is to remember or execute a series of commands of the movements. Like you shift your weight from right to left, then you exhale and the shoulder drops, the left one drops. It’s all very subtle.  Lots of commands that I’m thinking and doing and trying to be as exact as possible, as precise as possible. But trying not to be inundated or overwhelmed by how I feel and be as mechanical as possible.

 Do you think that once this work is archived it can belong to anyone and we have the right to use them or copy them or get inspiration from in any way? Should they just remain archives?

They should be activated and used in any way possible, any way that could be creative or inspiring. What’s done is done. If it sits in the archive, that’s kind of sad. I’m not sure if I will do a second project of copying but it is interesting. I didn’t have any agenda of promoting Kazuo Ohno or the comeback of Butoh. But now that this performance has kind of ignited the interest of Butoh in many places, if that inspires people, especially young people to learn to treasure, to learn the heritage of the body exploration, which is Butoh, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s very good training. I can tell you it’s very good training and that my body has changed. It has influenced me in generating movements. There’s no doubt that if you do this kind of work, you learn a lot.

Now that you’ve performed it 70 times, how do you feel you inhabit this work now? How do you feel now after going back into that body each time? 

When I tour, obviously, I have to prepare. It takes as much time as when I created it. Every time I look back at the videotapes, I find new movements or I find new timings or energy or shapes which I had not been able to capture from the videotape. I learn more and then I start seeing more details, more details, more details. The more I work, the more details I start seeing and this, I have to capture. It’s never-ending work. Some important rule in my work is not to own the movements, not to own the dance of Kazuo Ohno, not to make it of my own. I’d rather remain unfamiliar and not comfortable in it. My friends told me that if you become good at it, that’s not good.

Do you think it’s because it would not allow that space for self-doubt or you’d go into a comfort zone and then it would become mediocre?

 Yes, you lose the intensity or tension. This is an experiment. What happens? What if I can lose myself, erase myself and really force my body to become that of Kazuo Ohno? What happens if that happens? What can you see? That is the purpose of this experiment. If I end up owning the dance, owning the movements, then it becomes me. That’s totally against the idea of this work and you lose the point, I lose the point.  I should not allow myself to have fun and dance. Of course, I have fun. But what is important here is I have to remain awkward. The rest, people will see. Maybe they see the soul?

In this series of conversations we spoke quite a lot about the value of things, the value of practice. I think one thing that I remember when I had the privilege of hosting you at Dancehouse was how much you rehearsed. You warmed up and you rehearsed before each performance every day and how much rigour there was in that practice. Obviously, as you say, working with copying such an original does take that rigour. So I was in admiration of this effort that you put in finding that, precisely why you talk about this zone or terrain. Where you remain alert so as not to become something that you are not. I think this is where the work is.

But then moving onto another thing that we talk about in these conversations, it’s very much about what has value today. We hear a lot that what’s important today is whatever might be authentic. What I really liked about Kazuo Ohno was that you say again, that you copied. When you were much younger you copied the line dance in Pina Bausch’s 1980. Forsythe allowed you to copy one of his principles about points becoming forms. I wonder how you perceive what might be authentic or original? 

It is like a meditation in a way. You really need that kind of study, you have to get rid of all the things. The essence is what happens to me through copying. So the product is not the work. What happens with my body or with my dance or with myself? If we talk about authenticity or copying, we could say that there’s no piece of art that is free from copying regardless of whether it may be conscious of it or not. 

 Let us think back to the history of Butoh when it appeared and in response to what it emerged. How it was a reaction to very dark times. It used notions of grotesque and ugliness to actually respond to those times back then. I cannot help thinking that the world is not doing very well today either. I wonder whether Butoh can still be an answer for something or of interest for some because there’s not much room left for beauty or imagination. Perhaps it’s one of those art forms that has relevance to another context, which is today. 

Butoh, in its origin of the early ’60s maybe, was the antithesis of whatever was going on in Japan at that time (the post-war period). But I don’t think it was essentially a reaction to the atrocity of the war. Rather, it was defying the existing way of making things. It had the energy of going somewhere nobody had ever been to. Denying or defying was the energy of original Butoh.

I don’t know how that Butoh can have a point in contemporary society. I mean, if Butoh was, in a way, a comment on the rapid changes in society Japan was undergoing: industrialisation, modernisation, westernisation, economic growth, etc; and if it was defying all that, then how could it have a place in such society and get attention from people in the craze of development in the 60s, 70s and 80s?

Perhaps that explains all the talents who went abroad in the 80s. From the ’90s, public support for the arts started. The first grants were given in the early 90s, but hardly anybody from the Butoh field received them. It seemed that no money or attention was given to Butoh. So less and less Butoh was seen and the community got really small. They themselves admit that the village became a ghetto and there was little communication with the other developments of dance art, except for very few including Kazuo Ohno who was actively touring around the world as were several other big Butoh companies. 

 You were part of  Dumb Type. Now we know how much Dumb Type has impressed and influenced many because it was very political in nature. But would you say now, in retrospect, that the work that you were doing then  was political?

Teiji Furuhashi died after the work called S/N which, you could say, was very political. He came out on stage as a gay male Japanese and HIV-positive. Probably, he was one of the first (and very few still) who have come out as HIV-positive, or gay even. Doing that – and he was dying already – required such a courage. He had to be very brave and I just can’t imagine how he could do that and how he could bear the fear. But he believed in love. He said, “Artist has to be love, artist is love, has to be love.” The theme of that piece was: what can art do to change society? So it had to become political and produced a lot of spinoff projects, art-related, activism-related in the fields of many. From art to science and philosophy and economy and community development. A lot of people followed around and worked around this project in Kyoto, in Osaka, and throughout Japan. It was amazing. What they instigated was a huge thing. 

After that, the three Dumb Type productions I was part of are OR, Memorandum, and Voyage. In comparison, these were not so clearly or offhandedly political because we didn’t have a clear personal agenda that had to be told or worked on. So I don’t know. But for me, Dumb Type showed very interesting things. Dumb Type was called an artist collective, which is very democratic (or it’s supposed to be). It sounds like a utopian kind of creativity, but it means that nobody takes initiative and decision-making was very difficult and took a long-time. The hours evaporated between glasses of wine. Sometimes, it was very frustrating but sometimes, it took a very interesting course, morphing into very unexpected shapes and forms and ideas. That was kind of concocted and cooked for a long-time. Yes, it’s a very fine line between a democratic, active creation and a very dull process where nobody takes initiative. It’s a miracle that we did make the few two, or three productions that took place in that way,  and successfully.

 Is there anything of those years and the processes of work that you use then and that you kept and you used later? Maybe in the work you did later with Kazuo Ohno?

I really cannot explain in clear words. In Dumb Type, it was a very clean body. Teiji himself was saying that he didn’t like sweaty bodies. Even some later years and Dumb Type members would dare say that they wish they didn’t have to deal with the real body on stage. These images and the extravaganza of lights would give them more freedom. If you put a real body on stage, it changes everything. So in response, after I left Dumb Type or in parallel, I started creating my own work which became very heavily physical. 

 Do you want to speak a little bit more about your other projects? 

 A Perfect Life tells my personal story on stage about family, friends, people around me, my own experience, lovers, boyfriends.  This kind of personal situation became the main theme. In one piece, I told the story of my break-up with my boyfriend of 12 years. I thought that relationship gave me a part of the foundation of what I am now. So I wanted to reprocess what happened to that. It was hard and it was painful. I couldn’t remember anything good so I wanted to go into my memory and explore. The process of going back through that relationship became one of the performances of A Perfect Life.

 It’s not the perfect life!

 It’s not a perfect life, no. Another one I talked about was when I went to Okinawa and arrived right after the great earthquake that we had in East Japan. It was a double issue – the earthquake, Tsunami, and Okinawa’s problems, Okinawan issues surrounding the American military base and the war history. I thought the problem was so big that I couldn’t do anything. It was a huge thing for an artist to make a performance there in three weeks. I was really, really freaking out and it was a process of me overcoming those fears and trying to do something. I started with tearing newspaper into strips and it became a huge amount of it. That became the stage set.

 It feels to me that you are constantly going back to yourself and within yourself. You’re constantly extricating the most difficult and the most challenging and the most painful as a way of liberating you of something. Let’s also talk about Touch of the Other

The male to male intimacy in public toilets or tea room activities, obviously, has been a rich underground subculture of the gay community. It was a very important part of gay life in Japan and I went through all that too. A lot of sleazy, dirty things that should not be talked about so openly in society. But that has also shaped gay sensibility, gay culture and heritage. In recent years, the Gay Liberation Movement has reached one of its very important pinnacles, which is the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This is not happening in Japan yet but the entire world is celebrating. That is good, but at the same time, I think that everything surrounding gayness and the gay community, gay people, gay life was – and has become – in a way very conservative. They wanted to hush-hush about those dirty things and dirty histories because gay people wanted a proper place within society. That had to become very clean and proper.

Which made me uncomfortable as it is the minority trying to join the majority by becoming proper and rich and glossy. But at the same time, the gay community forgot about other issues that society has regarding minority of races or poverty. It’s like the commodification of the gay culture. We used to be a minority and now we are majority and we’re forgetting about where we come from. To pretend that we never were anything bad is not good.

A queer culture history in Japan is very different from the West. In Asia, in general, we didn’t have anything against male to male intimacy. Of course, after the 19th Century with westernisation, we have also imported anti-gay sentiments. Especially after the war, the gay or queer or homo were very-marginalised and discriminated against and we hid. We hid our sexuality. To begin with, sexuality is something that anybody in Japan would feel uncomfortable to talk about usually. The issue for women is already big, let alone gay people and gay men. We didn’t really come out of the closet until very recently.

The AIDS crisis has never devastated Japan, not like elsewhere.  So we’re not at the level of the western struggles. We have sort of escaped the hard part and now medication is available and the social system has accepted LGBT treatment. The history of homosexual tradition is more than 1000 years old. We have a lot of literature about male to male sex or pansexuality. It’s a little weird it’s not more widely open although it’s getting much better, I admit.

 I’d like to ask you, what do you think matters today to you as an artist or to you as a citizen of the world? 

What matters the most? There are lots of ugly problems, very painful issues in society. I wonder how we can become less selfish, a sort of de-self-isation. There’s a lot of pressure for every individual to be “me” and to claim whatever one is entitled to. But if we can be one with the universe, I know it sounds cliché but it’s like not really go to the front but recede and go to the back. Go from your back to the wall behind. Go up to the ceiling and come back here to the opposite wall and circulate. It is a very concrete dance awareness too, the space awareness. Rather than you become the center of the space and dominating it, but let this whole thing balance and be rich in.

If you realise and if you get that feeling, you don’t have to do anything, and everything starts dancing for you. This is a feeling that I would cherish, that I would like to see in people.

Morishita Studios, January 2019.