An essay on butoh performance training (2015)
I walk up the stairs with some trepidation. At the top, the door is decorated with white and red costume pieces. A white, painted doll wearing an oversized headdress stands by, pupilless. A sign on the door reads: “Please, no talking on entering.” I take a breath and walk through.
All my senses are immediately engaged. Calm, yet eerie music is playing. A slight incense is in the air. The lights are dim and colored. The space is full of altars, symbols, and organic memorabilia. The walls are covered in fabric and the floor is soft to the touch as I take off my shoes.
In the main room is Anastazia Louise, Goyo Aranaga, and a number of dancers. The dancers are lying prostrate on the floor. Some are gently stretching.
I am in Bad Unkl Sista’s dance studio for a Butoh training class. Bad Unkl Sista is an installation art and dance ensemble. Butoh is a form of Japanese modern dance that rose to prominence after World War II. These classes, not strictly Butoh, are called “Studies in Stillness.”
I change clothes and place myself on the floor with the other dancers. I close my eyes.
“Allow your body to sink through the floor,” says Anastazia—affectionately known to the group simply as Staz. “The floor is only solid because we perceive it to be.”
I’ve been attending Studies in Stillness classes for six months now. I’ve learned many of the movements that make up Bad Unkl Sista repertoires. That doesn’t offer any comfort by way of repetition, however. In butoh, anything can happen, and Staz includes this facet in her work.
“The doors are now locked. The safety container is set.”
For the next three hours, the only things I will be aware of is my body, the other people in the room, and Staz’s directions.
“Bring in the energy of ancestors,” she says.
I flex my feet, imagining—feeling—ancient memory streaming up through my soles, traveling up my spine, distributing itself to the tips of my fingers.
“Micro-movement by micro-movement, rotate yourself from the back of your body to the front of your body. You will eventually come to standing. Move only on your out-breath—and remember that even the thought of movement is a movement.”
I move a pinky. A forefinger. I lose track of time as I focus on my breathing and the position of each limb and digit. It is painstaking, and occasionally, uncomfortable. Sometimes a limb is hanging in the air when I inhale.
Finally, I begin to stand, hoisting each vertebrae up as if they were a series of pulleys. I open my eyes now. It feels like my consciousness has re-entered the room.
“That was half an hour,” Staz says. By this time I am ready to move, and the class begins.
The first time I saw Bad Unkl Sista perform was during their opera-scale piece in San Francisco entitled “First Breath – Last Breath”. The music, the set, and the costumes were created for the piece, which included audience participation. Wearing red was a requirement to enter—red shawls were provided in case audience members had none. I saw an aerialist in a leg brace perform on a trapeze. I saw Goyo discordantly play a piano as he was pushed by Staz on a turntable. I saw a man in white body paint contort himself as Staz held him, gripping his flesh so that he would not rush the audience. When they switched places, it was Staz’s turn. She reached, straining with open hands for the audience as musicians played a serene, baroque aria complete with harpsichord. She struggled in full costume against her captor.
In a moment of the kind that can only happen in live theater, her captor lost his grip. Staz rushed the stage, falling forward at its edge. When she lifted her head, blood was coming from a split in its fore. It matched the red in her costume.
Butoh is like this sometimes. Bad Unkl Sista is not strictly Butoh, but Butoh is the foundation of what they do. Bad Unkl Sista reinterprets Butoh with circus arts, original music, and costumes that often are of Victorian-era level complexity and detail, handmade by Staz herself. Goyo, a seasoned classical musician, plays pieces alternately composed and improvised, doing so with a litany of instruments ranging from Hang drum to piano. Together, with a core company of dancers trained in a variety of forms—but all trained in Bad Unkl Sista’s Butoh-inspired routines—the performances that they create are more than mind-blowing. They can be transformative.
Viewing a Butoh performance for the first time can be disconcerting, even disturbing, especially if one is not familiar with the art form. Traditional Butoh artists paint themselves fully white, leaving no flesh tones. Sometimes they paint the nooks and crannies audience members will not even see. Occasionally, they are naked. The point is to disappear, to lose one’s personal history, so that pure movement can take over.
During my first performance with the ensemble, I had the experience of applying this white paint. All my exposed flesh was covered except for my face; it was the last to go. I commented to Staz as I painted my nose and features, “I feel like I’m being erased.”
Butoh is not mere performance or shock-art, though it may look similar to the uninitiated. Butoh is more like an exercise in deconstructing psychological and emotional repression by way of dance. There is no strict repertoire of movement like there is in ballet or other dance forms. Butoh performances may include contortion or feats of physical strength so subtle that they appear effortless, even invisible. Sometimes it is improvised, sometimes it is choreographed—but it is always honest and intense. It requires a strong heart, mind, and stomach.
In Bad Unkl Sista, this raw edge is counterbalanced by Anastazia: seasoned performer, mother of three, craniosacral therapist, and empath—one who is extremely in tune with others’ emotions. During my training, I was struck by how emotionally open and honest each member of the ensemble was. There was no hint of competitiveness. Tears and hand laying were common. Male or female, experienced or beginner, each participant is drawn into the “safety container,” the space set among performers and audience members alike whenever a performance, termed an “offering,” occurs.
Real emotions come out during these offerings, so the container is not an idle ritual. It is a real boundary—if psychological at least—that allows the dancer to move freely while taking into account the safety of the audience members, termed “witnesses”. The art is not just in moving emotionally, which often is entangled with one’s personal history. The art is in sublimating the raw personal energy into articulated movement that retains all of its physical and emotional power, but none of the psychological baggage. This allows the dancer to engage each witness individually without any knowledge of their past; each witness experiences the movement as pure movement, rather than the dancer’s particular self-expression. The form begins to make more sense when considered in light of its historical and cultural roots. While Butoh since its inception has gone international—Anastazia’s own teacher is the Mexican master Diego Piñon—the art form at its core remains uniquely Japanese.
In addition to the Studies in Stillness classes, Bad Unkl Sista runs seasonal intensives that last a whole weekend. The intensives allow these deeper movements to be excavated through a range of exercises that would otherwise be addressed too hastily.
When I attended the summer intensive, I bunked, ate, danced, and talked with experienced dancers who gave no hint of their dedication or training. We were all equals. After the normal exercises, individuals were invited to do an offering, or an improvised movement session. Goyo provided live music, which added a sonic depth that allowed the dancer to excavate the movement to the fullest.
The most poignant moment during the intensive for me was also the most unexpected. While playing between offerings, myself and another male dancer I still consider a friend, accidentally nailed me in the nose with the ball of his foot. I fell backwards, holding my nostrils, concerned that my nose would bleed. It didn’t, but the moment brought up emotions in me that I couldn’t repress.
Staz, on whom such things are not lost, pointed to me and my fellow dancer:
“You two, in the circle. Offering—now.”
The other dancers encircled us. Goyo took his place lit the lights on myself and my fellow dancer. When Goyo began to play, we began to move. My fellow dancer, whose movements and mine had peculiar synergy that time, rested his arms on me in embrace, and I rested mine on his.
As Goyo played, we began to move. My partner, who at first was stronger than me, managed to move me across the floor. My eyes rolled into the back of my head—a technique that accesses the unconscious, or, as Staz terms it, “seeing the world in a different way.” Our grips alternated between those of captors and those of lovers. He nearly dragged me out of the circle. Undeterred, I dragged him back in. By the end, we were exhausted but at rest, just as we had begun.
When both my partner and I had come out of our reverie, we embraced in earnest. My issues dissolved during the course of the dance. The resolution of the conflict was completely wordless.
Bad Unkl Sista’s art, and by extension, butoh, is an art of healing. I will never forget this lesson.
After three seasons of training, I had the privilege of performing with Bad Unkl Sista for the first time. The piece we were to perform, Breathing Shadows, had a strict choreography of movement that was different than what I had worked with during the classes. The venue was 1015 Folsom, a well-known nightclub in San Francisco. The event was a benefit fundraiser for a couple whose infant had died during childbirth. Without insurance, they were left to deal with the medical costs themselves, and without the joy of their newborn son.
I was nervous.
The costumes for this event, which were handmade by Staz as always, ranged in a rainbow of colors I had not seen before in Bad Unkl Sista. My dress, which consisted of a tunic, headpiece, and a tight band around the torso, was green.
Goyo and his accompanying vocalist–Sonja Drakulich—took their places first. The dancers, including myself, took our places lying down on the stage. We laid there for up to ten minutes, or as long as it took for sets to transition. I remember Staz gripping my hand to my right and holding it. Hallie, a core company member, did the same to my left.
When the music began, we moved from our backs to our fronts, just like in the beginning of any class. We rose to standing in unison and merged into a line. With our hands raised, we exhaled and flung our hands downwards. We raised them again, and then, on an exaggerated exhale—a cue—we grabbed the forward dancer’s torso, drawing them into our abdomen. We then alternated into a series of backbends and forward bends, gradually moving until we were shoulder to shoulder in a line, facing the audience. To end the piece, we placed our hands at each other’s pelvis near the groin area. We pushed downwards with force, like a mother in childbirth, until we kneeled and our foreheads touched the stage. And there we stayed, motionless. This took twenty minutes.
When we stood, we gave a fist-in-hand bow that concludes each performance. Single-file, we walked off the stage amidst applause, cheers, and shouts of “I love you!”
I never met the couple who lost their newborn son, but I heard that the mother witnessed the offering. To say that I felt inadequate to the task would be an understatement, but one’s own feelings in a butoh performance are irrelevant. This is its advantage. One can lose all memory and sense of self in the moment; as long as the movement is true, then the piece is true. Repertoires and choreography are merely the foundation for an offering that inevitably happens in the present. For all my concern about following routine, the power of the performance is in the movement itself, choreographed or not.
I later performed with the ensemble two more times. During this, I gained a particular respect for butoh as an art form. It is as much a form of therapy as it is a form of self expression. The difference is that the Self expressed in this dance deserves a capital S. It comes from the hidden, unknown place that psychology only theorizes about. The genius in butoh, as in Bad Unkl Sista, is that this hidden place can be excavated and danced into re-animation. It is Shadow with a capital S. It is more than the foundation our feet dance on; it is the air we breathe.
It is as simple as an inhale and an exhale.