Butoh, the Japanese “Dance of Darkness” and Compassion

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Photographs by Michael Blase

Butoh, the Japanese “Dance of Darkness,” is an avant-garde dance form that developed in Japan in the 1950s. While Butoh is known for gestures that are playful, absurd, or grotesque, this practice shares similarities with Buddhism, including the concepts of selflessness, transformation, and compassion.

Butoh stands apart from other dance forms that strive to embody perfection and beauty. In Butoh, dancers may move in a trance-like state with eyes rolled and legs bent. They may shake their bodies and twist their faces, or bend and shuffle as they walk awkwardly. Dancers may look like an old crone or even death brought to life. In Butoh, though, every “body” is celebrated as a perfect body, one that connects to beauty that is both organic and natural.

Another aspect of Butoh that sets it apart from other dance forms is its emphasis on improvisation rather than carefully choreographed sequences of movements. Dancers aim to step beyond the social constraints of movement and tap into the emotionally charged unconscious. Dancers may move with a specific task in mind. They may also use music or imagery to shape their dances, such as imagining they are walking in the mud with eyes on the back of their head.

Vangeline, the founder and director of the Vangeline Theater and New York Butoh Institute, told Tricycle magazine that the “darkness” of Butoh refers to the thoughts and feelings that lie beneath our conscious awareness. In Butoh, dancers try to tap into those hidden thoughts and feelings, bringing them to the surface to be confronted and transformed.

Butoh is not just a dance form. It connects people to other dancers and to the world around them. It also embraces the dark side of human beings, the traits that many people don’t want to face. It is this welcoming of darkness that makes Butoh appear so strange and distorted to onlookers, and sometimes brings up fear in people watching or performing.

Although Butoh is not directly linked to Buddhism, it shares some similarities with it. Butoh encourages dancers to accept negative emotions like sadness, anger and fear, and then let them go. Butoh tunes into the energy of these emotions—what we “feel”—rather than what our conscious mind labels them.

With regular practice, Butoh can even help people achieve transformation. By getting in touch with suffering, without shutting themselves off from it, dancers are able to develop compassion. Vangeline told Tricycle that long-term Butoh dancers confront so much pain in themselves and in others, that they eventually develop some sort of compassion.

Butoh is no longer just a Japanese dance form. The dance has spread beyond Japan, with Butoh performers and dance groups in many countries. Vangeline represents the multicultural nature of modern Butoh—she is French-born, but now lives in the United States and teaches Butoh in the Japanese tradition. As people become more aware of the interconnectedness of the 21st century world, Butoh gives voice to the “darkness” that exists in all cultures.


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