Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) January 25, 2004 - Breaking Boundaries with Butoh

THE interview with Ko Murobushi was conducted over two days during a weeklong workshop. Then I watched him in a performance last Sunday – that added up to three trips to the Actor’s Studio, Bangsar, in Kuala Lumpur, for me. But then, this man that I “stalked” is one of the best-known butoh dancers of our time, so you’ll understand my enthusiasm.

Butoh is a performance art that originated in Japan during the post-World War II era. The art was created by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and Kazuo Ono (b 1906). Their early exposure to modern dance, the German neue tanze tradition, and their feelings of post-war Western rejection drove them to rebel against conventional dance forms and to search for a way of moving that better fit their bodies.

Born in Tokyo on June 14, 1947, Murobushi was a student of Hijikata and by 1968 he had already studied and performed widely with his sensei in Japan. He has since performed all over the world to high acclaim. He was in Malaysia as part of the weeklong Japan-Malaysia Technical Design Workshop, organised by the Protem Committee of the Malaysian Alliance of Technical Theatre and the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur. The week concluded last Sunday with a butoh performance – Open with Sand, Draw with Sand – showcasing what the workshop participants had learnt.

As I delved into the mysteries of butoh, I was forced to wipe the board clean and unlearn everything I knew about dance. This is an art form that dumbfounds critics for the values that most people would seek are not the ones exponents of butoh strive for. Defining butoh is futile as its meaning has a way of mutating, hence eluding definition. But there are certain ideas that gather around butoh, according to Murobushi:
“Butoh has as much to do with the mental state and meditation as with physical movements. Its movements are derived from an inner image that the dancer holds during the dance. The movements then come from impulses created by the image rather than conscious choices by the dancer. The butoh dancer would hold an image or several images in his mind during a performance and then allow the body to freely respond as it will to it or them.

“The other is the concept of the empty body. It is a feeling of returning to the starting point of a child’s body, which explains much of the movement in this form – slow, crouched – and seeming to constantly rediscover the use of limbs and torso. Like a child, dancers of butoh empty themselves of lifetimes of movement memory and remove the existence of their bodies from the social environment.”

The essence of butoh lies in the mechanism through which the dancers stop being themselves to become or transform into someone or something else. If the image that is held is “sand”, the final goal is not to imitate sand but to become sand and think like sand. The significance is not so much the transformation into sand, but the transformation itself, that is, the fact that the dancer changed. Only in this way can they bring the body back to its original state.

For Hijikata, his inspiration for butoh goes hand in hand with the literature of his time. He used words to inspire themes of movement in butoh. This influence is evident in Murobushi as he, too, used a keyword in the dance workshop, ”sand”. Each grain of sand has a solid body and yet it has a fluid quality that comes with no distinct form. He used that word as a medium for the dancers to find common movements and to explore what they usually cannot do with their bodies.

Murobushi is a minimalist when it comes to props. But in this choreography performed by Malaysian dancers Mew Chang Tsing, Caecar Chong and Kiea Kuan Nam, he decided to use sand based on an idea proposed by Chong.


“Prior to Malaysia, I had travelled and shared butoh in several Asian countries.

“There is always a sense of cultural ‘hybrid-ness’ in these people as during the course of history, cultures go missing and then are rediscovered and born again.

“Communication with fellow Asians is very interesting as I witness the meaning of butoh taking its own form.
“How butoh is expressed or read may not be as spoken or understood by the Japanese. In that sense, the word itself is deconstructed,” said.

As far as my memory goes, butoh was first introduced in Malaysia in the mid 90s by Penang-born dancer Lena Ang. Currently, the only butoh-influenced dance company in the country is Nyoba and Dancers led by founder Lee Swee Keong.

The performance by the Malaysian trio, although choreographed by Murobushi, saw a new interpretation in this next phase of butoh in Malaysia. It was interesting to see the word reconstructed as it interacted with the dancers’ identities – all three are Chinese-literate overseas Chinese who are Malaysian in every sense. The lighting and sound technicians picked up on this as they watched the dancers at practice.

The “soundscape” had multi-tracks of Mandarin text, Chinese music with a di zhi (flute) solo and other electronically engineered sounds including the fluctuating thumps of heartbeats. The lighting accompanied the dancers through creation as the front of stage was lit where the dancers were balancing at the edge of a seemingly “new world” (standing uncertainly at the very edge of the stage) while the rest of the stage was engulfed in darkness.Chong and Kiea each carried a bag leaking sand. As it spilled forth in front of them the dancers left a trail of footprints behind them. Chong took a straight path that Mew followed while Kiea drew a winding path. Jade-green light followed the trails of sand and as both path met, the dancers encircled each other, forming a circle of sand at the centre of the stage. Patterned shadows were thrown onto the winding path and, for a moment, the stage looked like it was littered with the scales of a dragon.

Murobushi’s solo performance was a shock to the system, especially for members of the audience attending their first butoh performance. But then the dance has been known to be even more shocking and disturbing than this, though it may not always be so.

You could feel his pain as he violently threw himself on to the ground and banged his bald head on the floor.
You could even feel the disgust and the fierceness of absolute rejection as he crunched loudly on a mouthful of sand and then spit it out. As his screeching got louder and more frequent, the level of discomfort increased.
There wasn’t any choreography or direction in that item. What we witnessed was simply the purer form of butoh where Murobushi did as he pleased, moved by impulses created by his mental images – none of which we could see.

There was a distinct difference between his performance and the Malaysian trios’, yet both were butoh. But then, butoh is supposed to be constantly changing and, in that difference, we have experience change.
And because of the nature, meaning and concept of butoh, it is difficult for the art form to get a bad review!

1 comment:

Lena Ang said...

Choy Su Ling,

It is moving to read a piece of dance writing that reflects a sincere effort to understand and translate an understanding of a dance form, especially so from a Malaysian. I am not familiar with your writing till today after receiving your blog from a friend in Malaysia. After reading a few of your articles on dance and dance critism, my heart started racing with excitement that there has emerged a dance reviewer in Malaysia who's interested and educated in dance criticism (and who can write). I thought this article was an excellent summation of Ko's teaching. The point he made about the hybrid-ness of Butoh is indeed a truism. Yes, Butoh is very much a personal journey of transformation of the body but because of its strive for a primal core of being, I belive it can speak to a multitude of audiences. And because it speaks to you, your interpretation is a valid point, positive or negative. Keep the good work going.