Words: Richard Thomas
So what is Butoh I hear you ask?
Butoh is a form of dance theatre that was founded in Japan during the late 20th century. Emerging from the rubble of post-world war 2, Japan was in the process of industrialization, rebuilding their once traditional culture into a modernizing nation. The people had experienced catastrophic horror on a scale unlike anyone had seen before, Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay testament to that, and the people were rebuilding their life’s from the ashes of this destruction.
As we look back through history, we turn towards art for a truer, personalised interpretation of events, an alternative representation written, painted and performed by those who cannot contain their emotions and need to express them in any form that they can. Butoh was one such creation. Founded by Tatsumi Hijikata in 1959, the artist sought an escape, a form that went beyond the traditional and represented the darkness and solitude of human experience. Exploring the metamorphosis of the body in other forms, distorted contortions mixed with graceful gliding movements, connect on an emotional level with the viewer. Ghost-like imagery working with dust, smoke and grotesque physical shapes was all intrasinqe in this research that formed the basis of Butoh. Giving voice to the shapeless, the voiceless and the unknown.
The dance itself is silent and works with extremely visual images. It has been known for some performers to paint their bodies white from head to toe, remove all hair and make themselves genderless so the body can be free from preconceived ideas of identity. This is often a misunderstood concept of Butoh and is by no means a requirement, it never actually occurred on stage until after 1970.
My own experience with Butoh came when I was studying contempory dance at London Metropolitan, Ernst Fisher, my teacher, who had studied the art form in Japan, showed me something I have never since experienced. It was spontaneous, born from its immediate impetus and its environment. With direction on the tempo, emotion and grace of our movements, we were provided images that were metaphysical in nature and expressive of deeper feelings and anxieties. Never before in my actor training had I experienced such utter and complete transformation. I literally left my body; I was tripping out on colours and fully embodied my imagery until I ‘became’ the other. It was such a release from anything that had gone before and having just experienced some very tragic and personal loss myself, I threw myself straight into the deep end.
During this period of exploration, as a class we were treated to a very special and private showing by a contempory artist working in this unique field. A close friend of Mr Fisher and Ms Halen Spackman, my tutors, was Marie-Gabrielle Roti.
Ms Rotie continues her work not just here in the UK but around the globe and her work is in constant demand. As a choreographer she has staged productions at The Place Theatre, The Royal Opera House, Exeter Phoenix and Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster. Internationally her credits include work that has toured festivals in Romania, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Japan and many other countries. Rotie is associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, Central School of Speech and Drama, Laban and numerous other UK universities, teaching Actors, Dancers, Directors, Visual Artists and Costume Designers.
Today, she heads up ButohUK, a centre for all things Butoh, holding weekly classes in Bethnal Green, East London and accommodates visiting artists from around the world. Drawing on a career spanning over 23 years as an artist and choreographer, Rottie has developed a style and methodology that incorporates her unique style of choreography and Butoh influences. Her weekly classes teach the philosophy of Buoth, translating Japanese terms and disciplines alongside a strong emphasis on improvisation. What is most important though is the journey of both the inner and outer experience of the individual; you are invited to push yourself, physically and mentally. The classes are welcome to all with an interest or curiosity about Butoh, with no age restrictions, from beginner to experienced, classes really do cater for everyone.
How does Butoh continue to be relevant to the work that you create today and how does it manage to sustain your interest?
Butoh is less about a fixed form, than a philosophical approach to movement and the body. Therefore, Butoh is constantly waiting to be discovered. This means as an artist and choreographer, I am always stepping forward into the unknown, in which case boredom is impossible!
Butoh seems to be constantly evolving, as an art-form that doesn’t really have any limitations, how has it managed to maintain such a strong sense of identity?
I think Butoh falls into two camps: those who just copy the forms, the look, the image, unquestioning and looking for easy answers. And those who work long and hard to explore the challenges and inspirations laid out by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.
How do you know, as a performer, when you have ‘got it’, that moment of transformation, is it pure feeling that you go on, are you sculpting your images by looking in a mirror? How do you then hold onto that moment to recreate it again for an audience? I‘m talking about that pure moment of creation. Will it always be different from that moment in the creative/rehearsal process to when you take it out of that space for others to see and does anything get lost or grow because of that?
When creating work, I spend a very long time improvising, writing notes, collecting images and making connections between concept and the material that is arising. In this process, original material and rawness may get lost, or it may deepen into something else. I keep my performances alive by dancing on the interface between choreography and improvisation, always allowing myself time to respond to the moment, to the different space and audience, and to whatever may arise in that moment. However, I counter this with very strong choreographic motivation, internal imagery, so there is no room for indulgence or vagueness! As for the moment of feeling like I have ‘got it’, then I try to avoid looking.. it’s like Zen: when you think your mind is clear, then its not! So in searching for something we often kill it. So I trust my physical consciousness, I listen and respond. And if this leads to an authentic transformation, then this is all I can hope for. Of course, choreographic form, clear notations can also give some sense of direction, a possibility of some certainty. But the form alone is not enough, and I need to present in ‘spirit’, in intention to complete something for both myself and the audience.
What prompted you to set up Butoh Uk and has the journey been a consistent incline and growth or has it been a tumultuous and unsteady path?
Butoh UK has organised over 50 workshops and several festivals. Participation has always been very consistent and strong. There are Butoh regulars and also, because London has such a transient community, many new faces all the time. I really enjoy creating this Butoh community, and a sense that people come together in workshops and classes, as a momentary ‘family’.
What would you say to someone who has only just learnt what Butoh is and may have a slight inquisitiveness about looking further into it? What could somebody who works outside the creative arts benefit from Butoh?
Butoh attracts many artists and creative types. I think because it’s not a class where you just copy another person, or keep checking in the mirror. Because Butoh is so much about each individuals creative journey, then it’s very easy for non-trained people to enter and take part. Butoh, with a few techniques, can be explored in any number of situations. I used to dance a lot at home, as I could not afford to hire dance studios. Inquisitiveness can be utilized to play, to invent, to search inside yourself!
As an artist, Butoh, for me is a very personal experience, allowing me to give a voice to the howling unknown and deep frustration that lies within, a feeling that ultimately, everything is futile. What is it that you are trying to say in your work, is there a consistent message that has evolved throughout the performances that you create or is each piece unique in its entirety?
Butoh embraces all aspects of the performer; the light and the dark. I find this very liberating. Most of my work has addressed specific themes according to my gender, relating to sexuality, spirituality, and beyond this into metaphysical and ontological concerns. I also try to go beyond the personal and address that which is common to all of us, particularly the fact we are born and we die and in between there is this gloriously complex and beautiful project we call life.
What next for Butoh UK, are there any upcoming performances from visiting artists that we can look forward to and do you yourself have any productions that you are currently working on?
I am inviting a young Japanese performer Moeno Wakamatsu to teach, perform and give a lecture. We will be here in November. Check the website butohuk.com. Anyone is welcome to take part!
Anyone interested in finding out more about the work of Marie-Gabrielle Rotie, ButohUK workshops and classes should check out the following websites, alternatively, you can contact through the email address at the below.
Tuesdays 7-9pm , Fee for drop in per class is £12
London Buddhist Arts Centre, Eastbourne House, Bullards Place, Bethnal Green, E2.
email | telephone: 07840936268
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