Excerpted from “Butoh in New York and San Francisco” published in Latvia in 2013 in English and Latvian, in “butos” edited by Simona Orinska.¹
Butoh dance is a post-modern dance-theater form that began in Tokyo in the late 1950s, instigated by founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Ohno Kazuo. It has since become a global diaspora, centered in many urban locales and intentional communities throughout the world. Each site has its own unique flavor, influenced by the history of its development and the artists who helped establish that community.
In New York, Eiko and Koma first performed their version of butoh – “white dance,” which they called it to distinguish it from Hijikata’s dance of darkness – in 1976, presented by the Japan Society. The couple studied with Ohno Kazuo in Japan, Mary Wigman student Manja Chmiel in Germany and Lucas Hoving (Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and others) in the Netherlands. The pair has developed their own style that they call “delicious movement,” and often present installation-like performances over several hours. They have collaborated with such numerous acclaimed artists as Anna Halprin and Kronos Quartet. The couple often tackles complex and sensitive themes, such as their collaboration with Cambodian painters presented in Cambodia and New York, and Offering, a mourning ritual presented near Ground Zero in New York. The duet has grown in prominence over the years, receiving such esteemed awards as two New York “Bessies,” and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.
Poppo Shiraishi, a student of butoh dancer Kunisaki Kamiryo, first infused butoh into the New York avant-garde scene when he founded Poppo and the GoGo Boys in 1979 and began presenting ritualistic, punk, site-specific work in the East Village. He was known for daring, controversial work, including jumping on cars and dancing with toilets. Several members of the GoGo Boys went on to form their own companies, including long-time principal dancer Celeste Hastings who has developed a rich solo career and in 2000 founded the Butoh Rockettes, which often performs in New York’s club scene. Many performers filtered in and out of Poppo’s GoGo Boys, including Zack Fuller, who has performed internationally and also worked extensively with Tanaka Min, and Sara Baird and Susan Lamberth, who went on to form Anemone Dance, which presented work in New York from 2002 to 2007.
New York’s formal introduction to butoh on the stage came with Ohno Kazuo’s performance of Admiring La Argentina and My Mother at La Mama in 1981, invited by visionary producer Ellen Stewart. Following this, Dairakurakan performed Sea Dappled Horse in 1982 at the American Dance Festival, where many New York-based dancers train and audiences attend performances. American audiences everywhere became increasingly aware of butoh with Sankai Juku’s performance at the LA Olympics in 1984. Ohno returned to New York in 1985 with performances of Admiring La Argentina and Dead Sea at Joyce Theater’s Japan Series. On this trip, Ohno granted an interview to Richard Schechner, one of the primary founders of the performance studies field and the impetus behind the Performance Studies Department at New York University. Schechner published the interview entitled “Kazuo Ohno Doesn’t Commute” in The Drama Review in Summer 1986, which was accompanied by a host of other articles on Ohno, Tanaka Min, Kuniyoshi Kazuko’s “Butoh Chronology: 1959- 1984,” and Bonnie Sue Stein’s “Twenty Years Ago We Were Dirty Crazy and Mad,” to which the ironic punchline is, “and now we have a passport.” Butoh had reached a new level of legitimacy, including academic study and high art status with performances at increasingly high profile venues, including Dairakurakan’s 1987 performance of The Five Rings at City Center and Ohno’s 1988 invitation to present Water Lilies at Asia Society.
In the 1990s, Maureen Fleming emerged as a prominent New York-based butoh artist. She performed a duet with Ohno Yoshito in 1991 at La Mama, and subsequently became a La Mama artist in residence in 1994. Fleming was a long-time student of Ohno Kazuo, and had performed with Yoshito, Tanaka Min, and Kasai Akira. She currently teaches in the Experimental Theater Wing at New York University and tours internationally.
Takenouchi Atsushi has been an important figure in the New York community as well, offering many workshops upstate and in nature. Many dancers trained with him in the 1990s, after which point he became more involved in Japan and Europe. Takenouchi worked with Hijikata briefly through Hoppo-Butoh-ha in Hokkaido in 1980, and then extensively with the Ohnos from 1996-99 in Japan.
Ohno returned to the United States in 1993, touring to Los Angeles, Seattle, Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and New York. He returned to New York again in 1996 with a performance of My Mother, and his final New York performance in 1999, Requiem for the 20th Century. In 2007, Japan Society hosted a three-week marathon of performances celebrating Ohno Kazuo’s 100th Birthday. He has been one of the most significant influences on the New York butoh community, helping to build an audience with his numerous performances and also through several of his important students who helped to found this community.
In the Fall of 2003, I moved to New York City, where I arrived just in time for the first New York Butoh Festival, produced by CAVE co-directors Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya and additional producers Jeff Janisheski, Zachary Model, and Juan Merchan. This group had studied together with Takenouchi Atsushi and Diego Piñon, and had been organizing smaller one-off butoh workshops and events in New York since 2000. Janisheski had also studied in Japan with the Ohnos and Waguri Yukio. The festival launched a new level of visibility and funding for butoh in New York, partnering with Japan Society and receiving support from the Rockefeller Multi-Art Production Fund, among other institutions. The first festival featured Waguri Yukio (Tokyo), SU-EN (Sweden – former student of Ashikawa Yoko and member of Gnome), Shinonome (Tokyo), Joan Laage (Seattle), Shinichi Koga (San Francisco), and Zack Fuller (New York). After three biennial festivals with extensive performance, lecture, film screenings, and workshops in 2003, 2005, and 2007, the organizers transitioned the format into its current NY Butoh-kan model focusing on ongoing workshops with more than18 different teachers, and training the next generation of dancers (340 unique students to date). They continue to co-produce performances for visiting masters with partner organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam, though not on the scale of the earlier festivals. They have facilitated opportunities for local dancers to perform in the works of visiting butoh masters, including Kasai Akira (Butoh America presented by Japan Society), Murobushi Ko (Furnace presented at Dixon Place), and Waguri Yukio (Labyrinth of Body presented at CAVE).
New York being the large arts community that it is, there are other artists and producers that present various workshops and performances with butoh masters.These include French born butoh dancer Vangeline, who founded Vangeline Theater in 2002 and frequently presents Diego Piñon and Katsura Kan, as well as coordinates a project for incarcerated women to study butoh. Vangeline’s work focuses on ritual and healing, influenced by Piñon’s Butoh Ritual Mexicano.
New York is a transient and disparate artistic community, though, and without the continuous presence of a butoh master like the Tamanos, who founded the first American butoh community in San Francisco, where they taught and created work for more than 40 years, there is no consistent style or lineage visible among the many artistic groups here that claim butoh as a guiding influence in their work. At the same time, there is also a great deal of experimentation – artists exploring intersections of butoh with theater, digital and visual arts, music and vocal improvisation, and burlesque. Perhaps this irreverent mixing is necessary to bring butoh into its future potential (which is also ironically returning it to its roots as an experimental art form). Still, one needs a solid foundation and deep engagement with any language if one is to learn how to use it properly. Yoshito commented that Hijikata first built something that he could then break. Many students came to Hijikata with no prior dance or movement training, and so he taught them ballet as a foundation. In his own movement vocabulary, Hijikata mixed ballet, German Neu Tanz, and pantomime. Yoshito is critical of the younger generation of dancers who “just jump into the butoh world with no practice.” He says, “People cannot make a revolution if they don’t have a foundation,” so they should “make first, then break.”
¹ For an updated and expanded version of this history, see Calamoneri’s Butoh America, Routledge, forthcoming.
Anderson, Jack. “Dance in Review: Poppo and the Go-Go Boys La Mama.” New York Times. October 25, 1993
Garnica, Ximena. Personal email to author, November 26, 2011. Kuniyoshi, Kazuko. “Butoh Chronology: 1959-1984.” The Drama Review: TDR , Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 127-141
Ono, Yoshito. Personal interview with the author, November 8, 2010.
Schechner, Richard, “Kazuo Ohno Doesn’t Commute,” The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 163- 169.
Stein, Bonnie Sue. “Butoh: Twenty Years Ago We Were Crazy, Dirty, and Mad.” The Drama Review: TDR , Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 107-126