Butoh, Arousal, and Outdoor Dance Training:

Ecological Dance as a Method of Decolonization

Rosemary Candelario

Decolonization, Butoh, Ecology

At its foundation, colonization is a process of acquiring ownership of space. Colonization claims local ecologies—networks of land, people, flora, fauna, practices, etc.—and through various means of force and discourse extracts (and justifies the extraction of) “useful” components—crops, labor, mineral wealth—for profit elsewhere. The (at best) climate change and (at worst) environmental devastation facing the world today, and the resultant wars and migrations, are inextricable from practices and discourses of colonialism and neocolonialism, and cannot be addressed without decolonization. Decolonization, it would then follow, must engage practices aimed at interrupting and unraveling these now deeply-entrenched systems and proposing alternatives.
  Colonization is something that was done over time with specific actions; it must then be countered with ongoing actions that rehearse new ways of being in the world. Decolonization is, in other words, a movement in many senses of the word. Today I want to talk about dance, and particularly butoh workshops, as a kind of decolonial methodology.
  Revolt of the body. The body in crisis. Expanding and erasing. Becoming an empty vessel. A corpse trying to stand up. Butoh dance processes, as represented by these shorthand descriptors, are frequently focused on the impossible. Seeking transformation, they acknowledge what is, even as they insist on reaching towards the unknown as their goal, even if it is entirely unworkable. As such, butoh practices are full of potential for developing processes for remembering, and creating anew relationships that challenge the entrenched systems of what Rolando Vazquez calls modernity/coloniality. For much of butoh’s history it has been associated with darkness, suffering, exhaustion, disease, and scarcity. When butoh was being developed during its heady first decade of experimentation in the 1960s, these were the very things that were being hidden away behind a veneer of sanitary perfection by a Japanese society newly integrated into global capital, and thus were the things that Hijikata Tatsumi and his compatriots sought to foreground, arousing in their audiences disgust, disturbance, and disorientation (see for example, Baird 2012, Eckersall 2013, Marotti 2013). Though the frequently repeated association between butoh and the atomic bomb is entirely a Western fabrication (see for example, Candelario 2016, Pagés 2018), the linkage between butoh and apocalyptic events is nonetheless strong in the public imaginary. In this sense, butoh methods are appropriate for addressing coloniality and its political and ecological crises, and collective despair and mourning in the face of such crises.
  This paper argues that what I am calling ecological dance—more on that soon—acts as training for developing (or remembering) alternative relationships between humans and the vast and varied other-than-human world, thereby working as a method of decolonization. By calling this dance “ecological,” rather than the more common “environmental dance,” I emphasize the inherently interrelational qualities of “ecology,” what Bottoms et al refer to as “networks of interdependence” (2012) or what Timothy Morton refers to as “the mesh” in which all beings, constructions, and objects are entangled (2012). This paper offers exploratory notes towards a historiography and praxis of ecological dance that offers possibilities to alter our collective understanding of bodies and the earth, and to train people to shift out of habitual patterns and into new ecological and decolonial ways of being. More specifically, I look at particular outdoor butoh workshops for the ways they train dancers and nondancers to open their bodies—a process I describe as arousal, more on that in a minute—to be in relation to the earth; past, present, and future. Butoh is certainly not the only dance form that does this. I focus on butoh here, first and foremost, because that is my background as a performer and my expertise as a scholar. However, there are two other reasons why butoh practices offer such a rich field in which to investigate ecological dance as a decolonial method. As I’ve written in The Routledge Companion to Dance Studies, “First, although there is an active debate about what constitutes contemporary butoh, the one thing people agree on is that butoh and butoh-related dance is fundamentally about the transformation of the dancing body into something else (see, e.g., Baird and Candelario 2018; Fraleigh 2010).” (Candelario 2019, 13). This to me is a key skill. “Second, many training workshops not only situate themselves in nature but also explicitly present the workshop as a way to understand or form a relationship with a particular landscape [and its associated histories]. I want to take the claims of these practices seriously as potential modes for transforming humans” (ibid) and forming or remembering relations with the other than human world.
   I want to be clear that although my focus is on butoh training, my “central point is not dance pedagogy or how the dance is taught, but on what the training produces. Whereas performance is often about spectatorship and representation, training is about participation and learning how to do something. Attention to training rather than performance, I propose, opens up a focus on learning and repeating behaviors that require us to act differently, not only in the specific locales of the trainings, but potentially also on a larger scale in relation our global climate,” (ibid) which is itself an outcome of what Rolando Vazquez calls modernity/coloniality. These training programs, I suggest, “neither engage the environment as a backdrop for dance, such as in site-specific dance, nor as an aesthetic object in its own right, as in land art, nor as a theme about which to dance” (ibid). Instead, they develop in their participants’ skills and processes, which I discuss here as “arousal,” aimed at developing a set of complex interconnections between humans and earth.

On arousal


Wakefulness. Alertness. Becoming awakened to. Arousal focuses our attention. It asks us to notice in a particular way, to pay attention here and now, to hone our perception (and to perhaps learn to perceive what is beyond just here and now). Arousal is at once a sensual and cognitive process – involving all parts of the body: skin, eyes, ears, nose, neurons. Psychology and physiology. Body and brain. Body as brain. Stimuli cue these complex bodybrain processes in order to MOTIVATE us. Arousal gives us a motive, it makes us (to go back to the late Latin) move. Accordingly, arousal is considered essential to processes fundamental to human survival: traditionally this has meant fight or flight, seeking food, reproduction. But today to consider survival, we cannot limit ourselves to the level of the individual or the species, but must focus at the planetary level. Our arousals then must shift accordingly.


My mouth opens wide, stays open a little too long. Openness. I dilate. Pupils, pores, blood cells. Ohhhhhhh… OH! Arousal suggests a state of receptivity and openness – a coming into the fullness of what is immanent, or what Rolando Vazquez calls “precedent” (2017). It is a precondition of desire. Desire itself is/as a particular kind of motivation. A strong want to move, but towards what? Audre Lorde proffers the erotic as a way of understanding all of the above aspects of arousal—the openness, the motivation, the movement, along with our bodies, all that surrounds us, and all that connects us. She says, “I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.” (Lorde quoted in Tate 1983, 115). For Lorde, the erotic is nothing less than motivation for and towards transformation. It is this kind of audacious arousal that I seek and that I sense the potential for in butoh, one that could awaken an openness to understanding ourselves in a different kind of relationship with earth.

Butoh, Arousal, Earth: A History

Arousal has been part of butoh’s history since before there was such a thing called butoh.Legend has it (though it’s not likely fact) that Hijikata’s choreographic debut in 1959 aroused such disgust in the audience with its taboo theme of male homosexuality and staging of animal sacrifice that members of the audience actually threw up. WOW. That’s a powerful performance. Even if it didn’t actually happen, the fact that such a legend formed up around the performance is significant in itself. Like the Japanese avant-garde of which they were part, the early butoh dancers, Hijikata and his collaborators–including Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno, Kasai Akira, Ishii Mitsutaka, Nakajima Natsu–were interested in arousing intense reactions in their audiences that could unsettle the sanitized Japanese society being constructed and promoted in the 60s. Scandal, shock, “evil,” randomness: the more bizarre the better. Thumbing their noses at societal expectations. Lickable programs featuring a hand, a pair of lips, and a phallus.“Gonorrheal costumes” (Baird 2012, 67). Vulvas drawn on men’s backs. These early butoh experiments, often called “DANCE EXPERIENCES,” played with arousing in the audience confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed with stimulus. It wasn’t until Hijikata’s project with photographer Eikoh Hosoe in Tohoku from 1965-68, (exhibited in 1968 and then published as Kamaitachi) and then crucially Bishop Yamada’s move to Tohoku in 1973 to start Hoppo Butoh-ha (“northern butoh school”) that butoh’s arousals were specifically aimed at or staged in a landscape other than the nooks and crannies of Tokyo’s underbelly haunted by the avant-garde. Hijikata himself grew up in Tohoku, northeast Japan, and moved to Tokyo as an adult. Hosoe, who as a child had been sent to stay with relatives in Tohoku during the bombing of Tokyo,invited Hijikata to do a photographic project. The trip was not nostalgic for either man—both had complicated feelings for and memories of the region. The photographs they produced for the exhibition and book are mythic and wicked; Hijikata frolics in rice fields, pulls half-naked women into small alleys, and leaps like a demon amongst a clutch of laughing children. At one point Hijikata himself seems to embody the sickle-weasel of the book’s title, running pell-mell across a fallow rice field, an apparently abducted child clutched to his open chest. The setting of the photos, the bitter cold northern rural region of traditional rice cultivation, quickly came to symbolize for viewers and audiences of his subsequent dances a “return to Tohoku,” one he mined for new choreographic ideas and movement vocabulary until his early death in 1986. Indeed for the last decade or so of his life, Hijikata spoke of his work as “Tohoku Kabuki,” saying, “I am cramming in all that is part of the image of Tohoku: rice paddies, the sky, the wind, and salty foods. If classical ballet stands for an extension upwards towards heaven, I cling to the land and return to the inside of my own body” (quoted in Jansen 2018, 103, emphasis in original). As Kosuge Hayato observes, “Since then, butoh has been discussed in the context of this northern area; in other words, Hijikata has been regarded by critics as rediscovering the indigenous bodily movements of northern rural Tohoku as part of his anti-authoritarian practice” (2018, 217). “Although Hijikata was far more interested in the idea of Tohoku than the material landscape, the strong association that ensued between butoh and site has since inspired butoh dancers to develop companies and practices in relation to their own local native or adopted landscapes. The form is now often taught and performed outdoors, in addition to being performed on stages, and has been adapted to many different landscapes all over the world” (Candelario 2019, 2012).

Ecological Dance Training as Decolonization Praxis

Now I’d like to give you two brief examples from my research of these ideas in practice. The first, Diego Piñon’s Body Ritual Movement, is an example of other people’s trainings that I attend. The second, based on my own work with South African artist and seed sovereignty activist Claire Rousell, offers a glimpse into my own practice research.
  Diego Piñon, influenced by his butoh studies in Mexico with Natsu Nakajima and in  Japan with Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno, developed his own practice related to his culture and ancestral lands in Michoacán, Mexico. Originally called Butoh Ritual Mexicano and now known as Body Ritual Movement, Piñon’s dance draws on shamanism; indigenous practices like the temescal; and connections to the land via fruits, vegetables, stones, flowers, and even a disused mine shaft. In his workshops, participants dance with ancestors, parents, even past lovers, as a way to confront and resolve ruptures. The work is not psychological in the sense of the individual, but rather is broad and deep healing work. Piñon is careful to insist that the dance is not just work on or for ourselves, but is a step towards changing the world. This tactile, sensual, also exhausting training is meant to take dancers to the limit of the individual and arouse connections to the past, the ancestors, and the earth. This work is then shared as a ritual performance with invited guests, usually followed by an offering of a meal. The point of performance for Piñon is to use the training to open a ritual space for witnesses to enter, a space to dance alternative relations, to mourn, and to celebrate our communion.
  I traveled to Johannesburg for three weeks in winter 2016 to work with Claire Rousell, who I had met at a butoh workshop in Sweden the previous year. At that time, we were struck by the parallel histories between Johannesburg and where I live in Denton, Texas; both are economies and geographies developed on histories and practices of racism, colonialism, and mineral extraction. In 2016 I traveled to Joburg for 3 weeks to work. with the Grrr Collective, of which Rousell was a member. I conducted an outdoor butoh workshop to help the Collective prepare for a performance at the opening of their exhibition that engaged folk tales at the Johannesburg City Library, and participated in the performance. Subsequently Claire and I offered four public workshops drawing on butoh practices and the writings of Joanna Macy: one at the City Library alongside the exhibition, two at the Wits School of Arts, and one at the Rainbow Crèche that sits on the edge of a field near the Skills Village that community members were hoping to develop into a more active community sharing space. Although most of our workshops were indoors, they nonetheless were deeply grounded in the space and history of the city.
  Exercises in the workshops were designed to arouse participants’ attention to their connections to one another, the earth, ancestors, and the past and future of Johannesburg. For example, we developed an exercise around the simple act of breathing. Quoting Macy, we encouraged participants to “Draw in the air that connects you with all being, for there is not one alive in this world now who is not breathing like you, in and out in a vast exchange of energy with the living body of our planet, seas and plants” (2014). We also drew on activities such as Macy’s “ Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors” (2014, 175-181) to create dances that sought connections between our personal, collective, and planetary pasts and our choices about how to move into the future.
  In both cases, the dance practice develops a set of tools and skills aimed at transforming our relationships to one another and the world around us that groups of dancers can rehearse together.

Moving on from Here

It’s not possible to conclude this paper, as the research is very much ongoing and I am still working through how to articulate it. So rather than give a conclusion, I prefer to offer some words by which to continue. I tell my students that they should never give someone else the last word in their writing, but I’m going to break my own rule today and end with the words of Rolando Vazquez from his article “Precedence, Earth, and the Anthropocene: Decolonizing Design.” Partially because his brilliant keynote has resonated so powerfully through this conference, and partially because he has stated so clearly what I have been sensing in butoh, but had not yet been able to describe so succinctly. He writes: “The decolonial task is to understand and face the loss of relational worlds and, with them, the loss of earth. It is about the restitution of hope in the possibility of enacting relational ways of inhabiting earth, of being with human and nonhuman others, and of relating to ourselves” (2017, 79). That is, I think, our most basic and most challenging task as humans, and one in which I think butoh, and dance and performance more broadly, have a significant role to play.

Works cited

Baird, Bruce. 2012. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Baird, Bruce and Rosemary Candelario. 2018. “Introduction: dance experience, dance of darkness, global butoh: the evolution of a new dance form.” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 1-22. London: Routledge.
Bottoms, Stephen, Aaron Franks, and Paula Kramer. 2012. “On Ecology.” Performance Research 17, no. 4: 1–4.
Candelario, Rosemary. 2016. Flowers Cracking Concrete: Eiko & Koma’s Asian/American Choreographies. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
___________________. 2019. “Dancing the Space: Butoh and Body Weather as Training for Ecological Consciousness.” In The Routledge Companion to Dance Studies, edited by Stacey Prickett and Helen Thomas, 11-21. London: Routledge.
Eckersall, Peter. 2013. Performativity and Event in 1960s Japan: City, Body, Memory. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Fraleigh, Sondra. 2010. Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Jansen, Sara. 2018. “Returns and Repetitions: Hijikata Tatsumi’s choreographic practice as a critical gesture of temporalization.” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 99-112. London: Routledge.
Kosuge, Hayato. 2018. “The expanding universe of butoh: the challenge of Bishop Yamada in Hoppo Buoth-ha and Shiokubi (1975).” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 214-225. London: Routledge.
Macy, Joanna. 2014. Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Fraleigh, Sondra. 2010. Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Jansen, Sara. 2018. “Returns and Repetitions: Hijikata Tatsumi’s choreographic practice as a critical gesture of temporalization.” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 99-112. London: Routledge.
Kosuge, Hayato. 2018. “The expanding universe of butoh: the challenge of Bishop Yamada in Hoppo Buoth-ha and Shiokubi (1975).” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 214-225. London: Routledge.
Macy, Joanna. 2014. Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Marotti, William. 2013. Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pagés, Sylviane. 2018. “A history of French fascination with butoh.” In The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance, edited by Bruce Baird and Rosemary Candelario, 254-261. London: Routledge.
Tate, Claudia, ed. 1983. “Audre Lorde.” Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum.
Vazquez, Rolando. 2017. “Precedence, Earth and the Anthropocene: Decolonizing design.” Design Philosophy Papers 15, no. 1: 77-91.

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