top of page
Online Ad_675 pix x 120 pix_edited.jpg

[ENG] Beyond Darkness - Butoh is a Life Journey

Yumiko Yoshioka (吉岡由美子); Photo provided by author

As a Japanese Butoh choreographer, dancer, teacher, and art director, Yumiko Yoshioka (吉岡由美子) maintains that audiences have a lot of profound misunderstandings and misconceptions about Butoh. This is the third time Yoshioka has been invited by Moving Arts Hong Kong to coach Body Resonance Butoh Dance Workshop (HK) and the improvised work Black Milk and White Coal Butoh (黑乳白炭) in Hong Kong. Yoshioka talked to dance journal/hk about the serendipitous nature of her entry into Butoh, her Butoh philosophy, and the challenges and prospects of Butoh in Hong Kong today.

Japanese Butoh, known as “Dance of Darkness”, was initiated by Tatsumi Hijikata (土方 巽) and Kazuo Ohno (大野一雄) after World War II. Compared to the elegance of ballet and the energy of contemporary dance, the anti-traditional and anti-aesthetic Butoh seems to feature distress and torture. Butoh dancers are frequently in the nude, in white body makeup, with open mouths, make claw-like hand gestures, perform slow movement, have disturbing facial expressions, and pursue both spiritual liberation and freedom of the soul. Therefore, for those seeking a harmonic aesthetic, the erratic nature of Butoh will disappoint.

Indeed, Butoh is not fairy floss and is rarely appreciated by uninitiated audiences. Why does Yoshioka take risks and go against the mainstream? She proceeds to answer the question with a long story about how she encountered Butoh. As a 20-year-old student in Tokyo, Yoshioka had no idea what Butoh was and had never danced before. It was a coincidence that she encountered Butoh at a time when she felt ‘lost’ and found social and political movements incapable of solving her problems. She hung around theatres, exhibitions, and museums searching for something new or shocking for inspiration. An almost magnetic mysterious power pulled Yoshioka to Butoh when, one day, she saw in a theatre a flyer for Ariadone Company, Japan’s first female Butoh dance troupe. After almost six-years of training, she became a member of the company and, in the 1970s-1980s, was among the first of Japan’s women Butoh dancers.

Photo: Micheal; provided by Moving Arts Hong Kong

In 1978, Yoshioka worked with two other well-known Japanese Butoh dancers, Ko Murobushi (室伏 鴻) and Carlotta Ikeda (池田早苗) to perform, in Paris, Europe’s first Butoh dance, Le Dernier Eden - Porte de l’au – delá, to great acclaim. Yoshioka made Germany her base in 1988 and began to develop her dance philosophy and dance approach “Body Resonance”. In 1995, she established TEN PEN CHii Art Labor with German visual artist Joaxhim Manger and American musician Zam Johnson, which integrates the arts of art installation, music, and dance to explore a new form of performing arts. Meanwhile, Yoshioka serves as co-artistic director with delta RA’I of the international Butoh project!. A Butoh-related exchange festival organized around different themes for each iteration,! has been held every four years since 1995 at Schloss Broellin in Germany. The project invites eight to twelve Butoh choreographers to create dance and share their dance experiences with other dancers from around the world.

Photo: Micheal; provided by Moving Arts Hong Kong

Yoshioka’s dance philosophy is that Butoh is the dance of transformation. “We have no idea where we come from and are not going to discuss [Butoh using a] scientific approach. However, I believe Butoh is an opportunity to dig into our consciousness and our diversity of life memories. Butoh is a life journey but not just the way of darkness. Most audiences associate Butoh dance with pain/darkness/death, in fact, it is a process/trial/exercise to tunnel through to find the exit/light/hope at the end finally. A journey to unconsciousness, mystery, and the unknown sometimes also scares us because we know we are going to the dark side. Darkness is something scary and negative but it is an element of life. Suffering is part of life, without pain life is boring. However, it may be another way to explore our spirit and our deeper side. We need more imagination to experience our body, to attempt to suppress our human identity and return to be part of the universe.”

The theme of Yoshioka’s Butoh dance workshop is “Difference and Similarity in Body Resonance”. To get to the body’s resonance, we need to first get rid of unnecessary tension. However, how to clean all the stress and pressures in our daily lives, especially in this capitalist society? Some techniques or exercises may not be suitable for everyone. Are there any adjustments in the workshop? Yumiko explains, “Our bodies wait to be unlocked to figure out possibilities. The workshop welcomes everyone. No matter male or female, professional, semi-professional, or layman, doing your best and listening to your body are essential. Therefore, everyone does the same exercises. Butoh shows more respect to the connections from animals and nature, rather than [being concerned with] the form or mastering techniques. Butoh is a medium to explore ourselves, activate our potential, to show another subtle beauty. The transformation is about point of view, a way of view, our respect for the human mind to understand difference. That’s why my bodywork is called Body Resonance. Also, people may come to the workshop for relaxing and fitness like a hobby class since Butoh is really challenging and not many people can manage it. People say their pain and stress are gone after the workshop because their body has been unlocked. It is not our goal but it happens.”

Photo: Micheal; provided by Moving Arts Hong Kong

She continues, “Everyone is as unique as flower blossoms that reach for the sunshine under the sky. Like lily, cherry, and marguerite [daisy] these little flowers are alive and vigorous. We cannot compare [them to decide] which one is the best; everyone can be the best. We do a Monster and Flower exercise [that explores] contrast and difference to show other ways of beauty. Many people crush and block their flower. It is symbolic of the body, soul, spirit, power, and beauty. We are living in a conditional society, [in a] multitasking mode, [with a] busy life, which blocks us in both mental and physical ways. Just like the improvisational dance of Black Milk and White Coal Butoh (黑乳白炭), as you see, all of us are like a baby, fairy, or little child joyful to be flying around. We are kissing, laughing, beaming, and playing together. One of the performers, Siu Fong (Hong Kong) lost her arms but she still has a good sense of dance. Darkness is an unknown in life but also a celebration of the diversity of life. We have love, fear, freedom to form a life. Butoh is the way to search for possibilities of different body, challenge limitations, and overcome regulation.”

Lastly, the development of Butoh in Japan is decaying but is blooming around the world, especially in Europe. I am curious to know if Yumiko has any expectations of Hong Kong Butoh dancers and the development of Butoh in Hong Kong? “I think in Hong Kong [the interest in Butoh] is deep and strong, but the big funny [thing] is [that there are] only two or three Butoh dancers here. I know a few of them have potential but it seems not many local dancers are engaged in Butoh. It is very few actually. I’ve heard many Butoh teachers come to Hong Kong according to a number of teachers or their adherents, but still, few study Butoh and I wonder why as well… Butoh is always [in the] minority and not majority. So, I don’t know why, maybe Butoh is not supported by the government? Political situation? Culture problem? Maybe [preferences of] the leaders of dance companies? But I’m glad that audiences in Hong Kong have a strong interest in Butoh.”

After talking with Yoshioka, I understand more about the essence of Butoh and her philosophy. “For me, I am not living for Butoh, however, it is a medium and way of my life.” Instead of labelling those who are different, we should try our best to understand other ways of beauty. The question is what is the standard of ‘beauty’ and who has the right to define the aesthetic? Do the majority represent a superior way with the minority view to be eliminated? Butoh is not only entertainment but a connection between ourselves, others, and the whole world. What’s intriguing to many about Butoh is still the grotesque body movements and facial expressions. Butoh is quite the opposite, however, the ‘darkness’ is superficial and used as a tool to denote difference and imagination, and lets practitioners delve deeply into thinking more about the cosmos.


Related Websites

Yumiko official website

Ko Murobushi

Dance Journal - Side Banner_Symphony of New Worlds.png
Dance Journal - Side Banner_LOVETRAIN2020.png
Dance Journal - Top Banner_LOVETRAIN2020.png
Dance Journal - Top Banner_Symphony of New Worlds.png
bottom of page