Four things you didn't know about Butoh
Wong Boon Ken speaks to Nyoba Kan founder Lee Swee Keong to uncover some truths about the mysterious Japanese perofrming art of Butoh
This month, Nyoba Kan collaborates with Indonesia’s Agung Gunawan and dabbles in puppetry in ‘Catan Kulit’, which is based on author Pu Song Ling’s literary classic ‘Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio’. The local Butoh dance company has held the International Butoh Festival in KL for the past four years to promote the dance form in Malaysia and along the way performed numerous avant-garde pieces, which have often been written off as bizarre and strange. However, this unique dance style boasts a cultural background that transcends the spectacle of a white painted half naked man on stage.
Butoh has a dark side...
‘Most dance forms emphasise beauty and celebration, but Butoh is the exact opposite. It is ugly and twisted, which is part of the Ankoku Butoh movement or the “Dance in the Darkness”. The philosophy of Butoh is to challenge and say no to everything in order to find a different solution to reality. In Dark Butoh especially, they don’t use pretty music, and even when they do, their movements will be the opposite. Sometimes they use noisy sound art and effects as well.’
...but it’s not all doom and gloom
‘White body paint is prominent in Dark Butoh. Like kabuki performers and geishas, they want to transform the normal body back to the neutral state. They want to go back to zero, to the mother’s womb. The white body paint helps us get into the performance and is a way to transform ourselves. As human beings, we need to try and experience something new. We need this. From the opposite side, we see the reality; from death, we see life. In fact, behind Dark Butoh is a very positive message.’
Zen is the name of the game
‘The master of Ankoku Butoh believes life is already full of improvisations, therefore when it comes to performances, we don’t need to improvise anymore. In contrast, there is another more improvised Butoh way we call Bright Butoh. I think we need to understand both techniques, so we are not trapped in either one. In our choreography, we have a concept and an overall form. However, we also have parts that are open for performers to themselves freely but based on that particular format.’
Butoh soothes the soul
‘Butoh is a form of therapy. With the outside world, we want to put our best face forward, to be presentable all the time. We try to hide the negative ways and emotions because we are taught that way. We’re not expressing ourselves well, which leads to depression. Butoh is a way to express ourselves and at the same time generate our inner energy. I blend in philosophies of Qi Gong, Taichi and yoga into my way of Butoh, but at the end of the day, it is all about oneness. We need to free ourselves and the body and soul as well.’