It was an auspicious beginning: It was May 1959, at a dance performance in Japan where a man was dancing, if you could call that dancing but there was no music. Then another man comes out with a chicken squeezed between his thighs and mimes sex with the bird, before succumbing to the sexual advances of the first dancer.
The stage lights are cut in order to protect the honor of the audience and curtail their shock and disgust. The two men are banished from the All Japan Artistic Dance Association who had sponsored the event, ignorant of the content, let alone the scandal that would ensue.
And so the avant-garde dance form known as butoh (pronounce boo-toe) was formally introduced to the world.
Originating in post-war Japan, butoh is born from cross-pollination between traditional Japanese theatre and German expressionism. Butoh dancers often look like the tortured figures of an Egon Schiele painting brought to life and imbued with the taut contrasts and disingenuous calm of Japanese aesthetics. The chicken-sex was not only for shock value. It was part of the overall aim of butoh: To focus on what is frightening and grotesque in nature the physical world”s and our own and to paint these forces in all their subtleties, using the human body as a medium.
Butoh aspires to a radical minimalism and an acute sensitivity of movement. Dancers have been known to dance naked and to cover their bodies in white paint. Their movements can be painfully slow, their body frozen in contorted poses, or hypnotically bizarre, seemingly inhuman yet disarmingly familiar. The pieces create an otherworldly atmosphere, and the dancers themselves disappear into it. The result is a sci-fi, ghostly terrain that only faintly, and eerily, echoes our own.
This Wednesday, the world-renowned butoh dance group Dairakudakan (pronounced dye-rah-koo-dah-kan) will perform in Ann Arbor. Led by Akaji Maro, the group has brought butoh to international dance scene by adding theatrical elements, thereby breaking away from traditional butoh. Maro originally studying under Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ono the original two men with the chicken and went on to found Dairakudakan, producing large-scale spectacles that have shaped the history of butoh.
He encourages his own students to break away and create their own style, an attitude that has engendered several new incarnations of the butoh aesthetic. The piece he will be performing on Wednesday is called “Kaiin No Uma,” meaning Sea-Dappled Horse, which begins with the creation of the world and ends with its hellish destruction, populated by spirit figures from Japanese ghost stories.
Rush tickets only ten bucks can be purchased at the Power Center Box Office on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Before the performance, at 7 p.m., there will be a talk given by Kate Reman-Wait, UMS Dance Education Specialist, on “Humor and the Grotesque: Inhabiting the Far Reaches of the Butoh Continuum.” The talk will be held in the Hussey Room of the Michigan League.