butoh [Jap.,=dance of darkness], avant-garde dance form developed in post-World War II Japan. First performed in 1959 by the dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, butoh became widespread in Japan during the 1960s. Abstract and expressive, it is implicitly related to the atomic bomb and thematically often centers around destruction and creation, apocalypse and rebirth. Typically, its movements are at times very graceful, at times quite grotesque. While there is no one style of butoh, the form often has certain characteristics: allover body paint, typically white but sometimes gold, silver or another color; shaved heads; and movement that is extremely controlled, often very slow, and imagistic rather than narrative in character. Butoh is performed by groups and soloists, the costuming runs from the elaborate to near nudity, and the music is usually contemporary, frequently electronic. Butoh grew in popularity during the 1980s and by the early 21st cent. there were performers, troupes, and festivals worldwide. Perhaps the best-known contemporary group is the Paris-based Japanese company Sankai Juku.

See studies by J. Viala and N. Masson-Sekine (1988), S. B. Klein (1989), S. H. Fraleigh (1999), K. Ohno (2004), and S. Horton (2006).

is the collective name for a diverse range of activites, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally "performed" in white-body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. But there is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.


The first butoh piece was Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), by Tatsumi Hijikata, which premiered in 1959. Based on the novel of the same name by Yukio Mishima, the piece explored the taboo of homosexuality and ended with a live chicken behind held between the legs of Yoshito Ohno (Kazuo Ohno's son) and Hijikata chasing Yoshito off the stage in darkness. Primarily as a result of the misconception that the chicken had died due to strangulation, this piece outraged the audience, and resulted in the banning of Hijikata from the festival where Kinjiki premiered and established him as an iconoclast.

In later work, Hijikata continued to subvert conventional notions of dance. Inspired by writers such as Yukio Mishima, Lautréamont, Artaud, Genet and de Sade, he delved into grotesquerie, darkness, and decay. Simultaneously, Hijikata explored the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as animals. He also developed a poetic and surreal choreographic language, butoh-fu (fu means "word" in Japanese), to help the dancer transform into other materials.

In the late 1960s, japanese horror/exploitation director Teruo Ishii hired Hijikata to create the role of a Moreau-like hermited mad scientist in the film "Horrors of Malformed Men," a role that is mostly performed as dance. The film has remained largely unseen in Japan for forty years because it was viewed as insensitive to the handicapped. Starting in the early 1980s, Butoh experienced a renaissance as Butoh groups began performing outside Japan for the first time. The most famous of these groups is Sankai Juku.

In a performance by Sankai Juku, in which the performers hung upside down from ropes from a tall building in Seattle, Washington, one of the ropes broke, resulting in the death of the performer. The footage was played on national news, whereby Butoh became more widely known in America through the tragedy.. A PBS documentary of a Butoh performance in a cave with no audience further broadened knowledge in America.

In the early 1990s, Koichi Tamano performed atop the giant drum of San Francisco Taiko Dojo inside Grace Cathedral, in an international religious celebratration.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa used Butoh movement for actors in his 2001 film Pulse ("Pulse", "Twitch", and "Short Cicuit" are all possible translations of the Japanese title), remade in Hollywood without Butoh.

Butoh's status at present is ambiguous. Accepted as a performance art overseas, it remains fairly unknown in Japan.

Butoh in popular culture

A Butoh performance choreographed by Yoshito Ohno appears at the beginning of the Tokyo section of Hal Hartley's 1996 film Flirt.

Ron Fricke's experimental documentary film Baraka (1992) features scenes of butoh performance.

The work developed beginning in 1960 by Kazuo Ohno with Tatsumi Hijikata was the beginning of what now is regarded as "Butoh." In Jean Viala's and Nourit Masson-Sekinea's book Shades of Darkness, Kazuo Ohno is regarded as "the soul of Butoh," while Tatsumi Hijikata is seen as "the architect of Butoh." Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno later developed their own styles of teaching separate from each other. Students of each style went on to create many different groups such as Sankai Juku, a Japanese dance group well-known to fans in North America.

Students of these two great artists have been known to show up the differing orientations of their masters. While Hijikata was a fearsome technician of the nervous system influencing input strategies and artists working in groups, Ohno is thought of as a more natural, individual, and nurturing figure who influenced solo artists.

There is much discussion about who should receive the credit for creating Butoh. As artists worked to create new art in all disciplines after World War II, Japan artists and thinkers emerged out of economic and social challenges that produced an energy and renewal of artists, dancers, painters, musicians, writers, and all artists.


Principal dancer for Hijikata was Koichi Tamano. Koichi Tamano made his United States debut in 1976 at the “Japan Now” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Hijikata called Koichi Tamano "the bow-legged Nijinsky", a quote later rendered in English by Alan Ginsberg. Classical Butoh is frequently semi nude, and muscle worshipping Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima considered Koichi Tamano to have the most perfect body among Japanese dancers. Koichi Tamano was declared a national treasure by the Emperor of Japan. Tamano frequently dances atop ten foot tall drum of played by Seiichi Tanaka, Grand Master of San Francisco Taiko Dojo at international taiko festivals.

Defining Butoh

Critic Mark Holborn has written that Butoh is defined by its very evasion of definition. The Kyoto Journal variably categorizes Butoh as dance, theater, “kitchen”, or “seditious act”. The San Francisco Examiner describes Butoh as "unclassifiable" (“strangest, most unclassifiable, and most haunting)”. The San Francisco Weekly adds the category of a kind of "world" of “restaurant theater” in a skid row context. The SF Weekly article entitled The Bizarre World of Butoh was about former sushi restaurant Country Station, in which Koichi Tamano was “chef”, and Hiroko Tamano "manager". The article begins, “There’s a dirty corner of Mission Street, where a sushi restaurant called Country Station shares space with hoodlums and homeless drunks, a restaurant so camouflaged by dark and filth it easily escapes notice. But when the restaurant is full and bustling, there is a kind of theater that happens inside…” Butoh frequently occurs in areas of extremes of the human condition, such as skid rows, or extreme physical environments, such as a cave with no audience, remote Japanese cemetery, or hanging by ropes from a skyscraper in front of the Washington Monument. Hiroko Tamano considers modelling for artists to be Botoh, in which she poses in "impossible" positions held for hours, which she calls "really slow Butoh". The Tamano’s home seconds as a “dance” studio, with any room or portion of yard potentially used. When a completely new student arrived for a workshop in 1989, and found a chaotic simultaneous photo shoot, dress rehearsal for a performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, workshop, costume making session, lunch, chat, and newspaper interview, all "choreographed" into one event by Hiroko Tamano, she ordered the student, in broken English, “Do interview”. The new student was interviewed, without informing the reporter that the student had no knowledge as to what Butoh was. The improvised information was published, “defining” Butoh for the area public. Hiroko Tamano then informed the student that the interview itself was Butoh, and that was the lesson. Such "seditious acts", or pranks in the context of chaos, are Butoh. “Ankoku Butoh” is usually roughly translated as “dark steps”.


Teachers influenced by more Hijikata style approaches tend to use highly elaborate visulizations that can be highly mimetic, theatrical and expressive. A good example of this teaching would be Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, founders of Harupin-Ha Butoh Dance Company(who own and operate the Tamasei Sushi restaurant in San Francisco).

Teachers who have spent time with Ohno seem to be much more eclectic and individual in approach, bearing the mark of their master, perhaps, in tendencies to indulge in wistful states of spiritualized semi-embodiment.

There have however been many unique groups and performance companies influenced by the movements created by Hijikata and Ohno, ranging from the highly minimalist of Sankai Juku, to very theatrically explosive and carnivalesque performance of groups like Dai Rakudakan.


Many Nikkei (or members of the Japanese diaspora), such as Japanese Canadians Jay Hirabayashi of Kokoro Dance, Denise Fujiwara, incorporate butoh in their dance or have launched butoh dance troupes.

Butoh is also created and performed by non-Japanese Canadians – Thomas Anfield and Kevin Bergsma formed BUTOH-a-GO-GO in 1999 billing it a "Second Generation Butoh/Performance Company." Anfield and Bergsma met in 1995 working with Kokoro Dance.

Numerous Butoh companies exist outside of Japan in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. The multimedia, physical theater-oriented group called Ink Boat in San Francisco incorporates humor into their work. The Swedish SU-EN Butoh Company tours Europe extensively. One of the most prominent butoh-influenced performers is the American dancer Maureen Fleming.

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