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A compilation of Butoh Exercises

A Compilation of Butoh Exercises

Abel Coelho


Spring 2008 Introduction

Butoh ( dance step) is a performance style developed by Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-86) () from the late Fifties to the early Eighties. It would be no exaggeration to say that the dancecontinued to be developed through Hijikata's life, from the rebellious spirit of his early "Dance Experiences" through his later work, "Tohoku Kabuki" ().

In the early Sixties, Hijikata used the term "Ankoku-Buyo" ( dance of darkness) to describe his dance, but later changed the word "buyo," filled with associations of Japanese classical dance to that of "butoh," a long discarded word for dance that originally meant European ballroom dancing (Kurihara 2000, 12).

When Hijikata's dance first emerged in Tokyo, it was seen as a subversive, potentially dangerous performance style. Hijikata presented audiences with vivid, shocking work that some say started a whole art movement in Tokyo (Kurihara 1996, 153-54). Far from remaining an isolated performance art, Hijikata's students sparked off numerous other dance groups, taking their base training from Hijikata, calling their work "butoh," yet putting their own spin on his work. Groups like Dairakudakan (), Sankai-juku ( ), Byakko-sha (), and more, all were formed as a part of this performance movement called butoh.

In addition, a number of people with few formal connections to Hijikata began to call their own idiosyncratic dance "butoh". Among these we can include Iwana Masaki (), Tanaka Min (), and Teru Goi (Kuniyoshi 11; Viala 58, 64). Although all manner of systematic thinking about butoh dance can be found, perhaps Iwana Masaki most accurately sums up the variety of butoh styles:

While 'Ankoku Butoh' can be said to have possessed a very precise method and philosophy (perhaps it could be called 'inherited butoh'), I regard present day butoh as a 'tendency' that depends not only on Hijikata's philosophical legacy but also on the development of new and diverse modes of expression.

The 'tendency' that I speak of involved extricating the pure life which is dormant in our bodies. (37)



A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Hijikata is often quoted saying what opposition he had to a codified dance: "Since I believe neither in a dance teaching method nor in controlling movement, I do not teach in this manner" (qtd. in Viala 186). However, in the pursuit and development of his own work, it is only natural that a "Hijikata" style of working, and therefore a "method" emerged. I heard from both Mikami Kayo and Maro Akaji that Hijikata exhorted his disciples to not imitate his own dance when they left to create their own butoh dance groups. If this is the case, then his words indeed do make sense: there are as many types of butoh as there are butoh choreographers.

Now, in the year 2008, in every major city in the world one can now find dance and theatre groups who use the term "butoh" to define themselves. The variety of performance style is enormous, and yet the term "butoh" continues to be applied to all these performance styles.

Even though almost fifty years have passed since Hijikata and Ono Yoshito's first performance, "Kinjiki" ( ), there is still very little available material in English on the method of butoh dance. With such nebulous definitions and ideas about the dance, it is no wonder many shy away from precise methodologies.

Thus the appearance of this compilation of butoh dance exercises. Here, I have collected as many duplicatable exercises as possible and committed them to paper. These exercises come from a variety of sources. Some come from well known and reputable butoh teachers such as Ashikawa Yoko and Maro Akaji, yet others come from as yet fairly unknown butoh practitioners, such as Vangeline or Harada Nobuo. In this way the reader attains some familiarity with common themes in these exercises, and can also find out for themselves which approaches to butoh work best for him/her.

^ A Note on Ohno Kazuo

Although butoh pioneer Ohno Kazuo () is one of the most important teachers of butoh dance, teaching literally thousands of students from his studio "Butoh Laboratory" () in Yokohama, I have not included any of his exercises in this compilation because of the rambling and personal nature of his lectures. For detailed accounts and transcripts of these lessons, please see the excellent book Kazuo Ohno's World from Without and Within (2004) published by Wesleyan University Press.

^ About the Exercises

It should be noted that I do not claim to be an expert on butoh dance methods. Rather, I have collected exercises from a variety of sources and merely replicated them here. In the very process of writing something down, one looses a sense of immediacy, which might lead some of these exercises to be seen as "diluted".

As such, I have focussed my energies towards transcribing exercises that do not require highly precise body postures. Although diagrams are provided for some of the basic body shapes, it is beyond my present means to transcribe complicated body postures without the aid of a talented artist. 2/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Also, due to a need to accurately reproduce the exercises, rather than leave crucial instructions to the student's imagination, I have rejected exercises whose presentation to me was too ambiguous or elusive to note properly.

All efforts have been taken to present a clear description of the exercises, and as often as possible using the exact words of the instructor / workshop leader. In such a subjective activity as recording one's workshop lessons, it is inevitable that the exercises here may have been coloured by personal experiences and viewpoints. Thus, at the end of each exercise I write "X via Y," which shows whose incarnations the exercises underwent before being collected here.

For example, when I write "Mikami via Coelho," below an exercise, I am explaining that the exercise is one from Mikami, but recorded by myself. Thus, Mikami should not be help responsible for any misunderstandings that occur.

Not in any of its incarnations do I believe that butoh is a style to be learned quickly: these exercises may not have you dancing butoh the very first or ten times you do them, rather they are more a roadmap to butoh and not a fast train. They are not meant as substitutes for workshop experiences.

In addition, should the reader know of any refinements that could be used to clarify the exercises, please contact me at I would also appreciate any new submissions to be added to this compilation.

The exercises are divided into three groups: 1. Ankoku Butoh Exercises.

These are exercises that are claimed to be rooted in Ankoku Butoh, which means that they are based on Hijikata's methods of Butoh dance. When a dancer refers to themselves as "Ankoku Butoh," one can be sure that somewhere along their training, they received instruction from either Hijikata himself or one of his disciples. The Ankoku Butoh exercises in this compilation are all derived directly from Hijikata's disciples. 2. Dairakudakan Exercises

Dairakudakan has their own unique approach to butoh dance, an approach that is based in large part on physical training and some on image training as well. Since I was lucky enough to participate in an intensive 3/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Dairakudakan workshop, I feel I can present their methods with a degree of confidence. 3. Other Butoh Groups

These are dances that do not fit into either the Ankoku school of butoh, neither the Dairakudakan approach. Unlike the previous two categories, these exercises do not necessarily form an orderly approach to butoh relative to each other since each group has it's own methods and ideas about butoh.

An explanation of my diagrams: The exercises are typed as follows:

^ Dance group or workshop leader name Japanese name of exercise (if available) Romanization of above English name of exercise

Introduction to exercise (not always provided). Exercise content. Exercise content.

Diagram (if provided).


Notes on exercise, if applicable.

(Source of exercise) ______________________________

About the dance groups and butoh artists mentioned in the exercises: 4/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Torifune Butoh-sha was formed in 1991 by Mikami Yukio and Mikami Kayo. ( and ) Mikami Kayo trained and lived at Hijikata's studio, Asbestos-kan, from 1978 to 1981. Her books contain some of the most extensive notes on Hijikata's methods and exercises available (all in Japanese).

Hakutoboh was formed as a subset of Hijikata's main dance group, and was led primarily (but choreographed by Hijikata) by Ashikawa Yoko (), Hijikata's primary disciple. Ashikawa led Hakutoboh until 1986, when Tomoe Shizune () took over Ashikawa's duties as leader. Ashikawa continued to play a vital part in Hakutoboh's activities for many years, gradually retiring; teaching and choreographing less and less.

Nowadays, one of Hakutoboh's main workshop teachers is a former Hijikata disciple who goes only by the name of Seisaku (), who led two of the exercises described in this collection.

Dairakudakan was founded by was formed in 1972 by Maro Akaji (). They have become one of butoh's biggest and most well known companies, often touring all over the world, and earning a reputation for their brash and carnivalesque performances. They are one of the oldest surviving butoh groups. Their dance technique is called "Tenputenshiki" (), which Maro translates as "Being born into this world is a great talent in itself."

Kasai Toshiharu is also known as Morita Itto (), his stage name. He started dancing butoh in 1988 and founded his own company, GooSayTen (), in 1996 in Sapporo. Currently he is professor of clinical psychology at Sapporo Gakuin University.

Ishii Mitsutaka danced in many of Hijikata's early productions, and was one of the first butoh dancers to create work independent of Hijikata. In 1967 he choreographed Hijikata in "Genet". He is still active in the butoh world today, often leading workshops or performing. He also leads dance therapy workshops in several psychiatric hospitals, which in turn affects his work. (Viala 152)

Kanazawa Butoh-kan was founded by former Hakutoboh member Yamamoto Moe () in 1976. 5/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Their first few performances were in Tokyo, but they eventually relocated to Yamamoto's hometown in Kanazawa and started creating work there. The Eighties were a time of great growth for them, and they toured Japan, America, and Australia. Yamamoto Moe has a reputation for being partial to teaching butoh to foreigners. Recently, they have been concentrating on workshops in Australia and Japan.

^ Frances Barbe first started studying butoh at the age of twenty-one, when she was introduced to the form in her native Australia. She produced many works in London, and danced in Endo Tadashi's Mamu Dance Theatre, a butoh laboratory based in Germany, and also with Katsura Kan. Currently she teaches at the University of Kent and choreographs work for Australian based group ZenZenZo. (Fraleigh and Nakamura 133-35)

Seiryukai is a butoh dance group based in Fukuoka, Japan. Its founder, Harada Nobuo () studied in Europe with Kasai Akira () from 1973-79 before returning to Japan and forming his own dance groups. (Fraleigh and Nakamura 138)

^ Vangeline Theatre is a "post-modern butoh dance company" based in New York City. It was founded in 2002 by French dancer Vangeline, who has been dancing in New York for over fourteen years. Their work is rooted in butoh dance, while being committed to carrying butoh into the twenty-first century.

^ Diego Pion's Butoh Ritual Mexicano is currently one of the most popular butoh methods used in the United States, and is used by many groups, including Vangeline Theatre. Pion has studied butoh extensively in Japan with Byakko-sha, Ono Yoshito and Ono Kazuo, and Tanaka Min. His Butoh Ritual Mexicano fuses elements of Japanese butoh with native Mexican ritual. Part One: Ankoku Butoh

Torifune Butoh-sha Kihon Hokou "Muyuubyou" Basic Walk "Somnambulism"

This is the basic Ankoku Butoh walk as taught by Mikami Kayo of Torifune Butoh-sha. Elements are also used in Hakutoboh's workshops (Kurihara 1996, 105-07). Start by memorizing the list of movement cues below, then use the diagram and explanations to create the walk. 1. To walk as a measure. 6/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

2. To move but not to walk between heaven and earth. 3. A glass eye. Put an eye in the centre of the forehead. 4. The speed of reflecting (the scene in front of dancer off the glass eye) is swifter than that of seeing (vision). 5. Razor blades on the soles of the feet. 6. A water basin full of acid balanced on the head. 7. Joints suspended by spider threads. 8. The will to walk comes first. After that, the form follows. 9. The footsteps can be seen suspended forwards and backwards. 10. A glass eye. Put an eye in the centre of the forehead. 11. Razor blades on the soles of the feet. 12. A water basin full of acid balanced on the head. 13. A forest of molar teeth. A thread pierces the hollow of the body. 14. Eyes will cease to see. Legs will cease to walk. Being becomes as walking eyes and walking legs. 15. Walking requires internal discontinuity and enhances the expansion of space. 16. To walk as a measure.

In addition to imagining and internalizing the above instructions, we were told to imagine 100 twins walking to the left, right, behind and in front of us. The key is that one becomes a part of an imaginary group of people and the subtle difference in stepping in time with them. Kurihara also mentions this as part of Hakutoboh's work (1996, 108-09).


Arms hang to the side. Feet must be shoulder width apart and parallel. Notes on the above list of images: 4. 7/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

The dancer does not see: rather, the landscape is reflected off the eyes. More on the eyes in the next exercise. 5. Razorblades on the soles of the feet requires a very careful and soft placing of feet on the ground. Parallel to the ground, with no sliding.

4. The water basin weighs so much it forces the body downwards to the bowed knees position. The danger of the acid falling emphasises the care with which to walk. The weight of the basin also keeps the trunk and spine straight and aligned, just pushed down. 5. Spider threads suspend and control the movement. Care must be taken not to break them.

9) This is related to the idea of 100 others walking with you, 13) The forest of molars means the mouth is forced slightly open. 13) The thread pierces the body horizontally though the chest, and this does not allow up and down, nor side to side movement (for the pain of the piercing). More notes:

The body must not bob up and down nor the hips move side to side as with regular walking. If so, the thread piercing the body would scrape and create intense pain. In order to accomplish this feat, the hip muscles must be tightened considerably.

The student must imagine and bodily experience the movement cues. Integrating them into the body / mind space will produce movement: the student becomes moved, but must adhere to the postures shown above.

The Hakutoboh version of this walk is similar, but with some different movement cues. For example, instead a water basin above the head keeping the spine straight and the knees bent, many strings attached to body accomplish this task (Kurihara 1996, 106).

This walk is slow, centred, and controlled.

(Mikami via Coelho)

Hakutoboh 8/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Eye Work

The eye exercise could also apply to the eyes in the above walking exercise. These are Kurihara's notes from a workshop with Hakutoboh.

Your eyes become glass. There is one eye on your forehead. You do not look; the landscape is projected onto your eyes. Your eyes are located five centimetres behind where they are now. You have no purpose. (Kurihara 1996, 120-21)

Notes from Kurihara:

I was eventually able to see without focusing on anything in particular. My eyes didn't move around anymore. The I realized that this was the condition the teacher had described as 'a landscape reflected on your eyes.' I was conscious, of course, but felt that it was a different kind of consciousness from that of my everyday life. This passive way of seeing made me centred and more physically aware. (1996, 121)

(Ashikawa via Kurihara 1996, 120-21) ^ Hakutoboh and Torifune Butoh-sha Mushikui Insect Bite

Torifune Butoh-sha also uses the same exercise. Both are described here, starting with Hakutoboh.

Kurihara mentions the Hakutoboh teacher rubbing a drumstick back and forth on a drum, making a slithering sound; or playing a tape of a power saw cutting through metal (1996, 125).

^ Hakutoboh's version:



A compilation of Butoh Exercises

The student must imagine and bodily experience the below movement cues. Integrating them into the body / mind space will produce movement: the student becomes moved.

The student begins by standing. An insect is crawling from between your right index finger and middle finger onto the back of your hand... to your lower arm... your upper arm. You must actually feel the insect. At first, the teacher touches parts of your body so that you can feel it. Your arm begins to raise slightly because of the itchiness. You have to do it. Do not act it. ...Itchy, itchy. The itchiness influences not only the parts that have been bitten, but other areas as well. Your neck pulls. Even the inside of your mouth... ...especially the right side... ...and the shape of your mouth changes. A second insect crawls from behind the left ear... ...across the neck... the back. The third insect crawls from the side of the left foot... up the left leg. Your legs are pulled and move involuntarily from the itchiness. The student begins to walk forward slowly. The fourth insect crawls from behind the right ear... ...down the neck... 10/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises the chest. This influences the inside of the body, which influences the knees, heels, and toes. You have no purpose. In the end, you are eaten by insects who enter through all the pores of your body, and your body becomes hollow like a stuffed animal. Your body becomes like the rough surface of a wall. Your internal organs shrink up.

Notes from Kurihara:

Each dancer must perceive, mentally define, and memorize the parts of the body that correspond to each insect. (...) When the number of insects increases, you tend to become ambiguous about their locations, but you should not; you must perceive their exact locations and control them. The teacher would say, 'Start with fewer locations and learn that sensation first.' (1996, 128)

The condition of my entire body had changed as a result of the tremendous tension caused by the insects, although the shape of my body would not have looked very different if viewed objectively. (1996, 129) (Ashikawa via Kurihara 1996, 125-29)

^ Torifune's version:

The student must imagine and bodily experience the below movement cues. Integrating them into the body / mind space will produce movement: the student becomes moved.

A bug is crawling on the back of your right hand, A second bug is creeping down from your left side of your neck to your back, A third bug is wriggling up along your inner thigh, (The teacher flicks the student with their fingernails) A fourth bug is squirming down from your left shoulder to your chest, A fifth bug 11/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

(The teacher flicks the student with their fingernails) Ah, where is it ? (The teacher stops flicking the student) Youre so itchy, here and there. You cant stand still. Itchiness is shoving you all around, Itchiness under your chin, itchiness at the base of your ears, itchiness around your elbows, itchiness around your kneecaps, itchiness around your waist, Ah! Therere five-hundred of them! Around your eyes, around your mouth, in your ears, between your fingers, in every mucous membrane Five thousand bugs A bug on every hair, A bug in every pore, From there two hundred thousand bugs are crawling down into your guts and drilling them voraciously, Having eaten them up the bugs are coming out of your body through the pores, Now they are eating the space around your body, Now the bugs are full of the outer space and are being eaten (together with it) by another kind of bugs, Lo! The whole universe is being eaten up by another-another kind of bugs. (Half a billion bugs on a tree. The inside is all gone) This is the end of the world. All has deceased.

(Mikami via Coelho)


In both versions, the teacher touches the student to suggest the insects then gradually leads the student to use their own body-imagination. It is important that the student does not imitate the sensations described, but actually is able to feel and be moved by them. 12/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Hakutoboh Taieki Koukan Body Fluid Exchange

The students get into pairs. Loose the seal of your bodily fluids. Mix body fluids with your partner. Closer and closer. Touch bodies, to exchange body fluids. Until body fluids are totally mixed and one body is totally indistinguishable from the other. Bodies disappear. Who is who? Lose individual awareness. Fluids become one. One being.


Of course, there is no need to exchange real bodily fluids. The two students must become tightly embraced and close to each other until they loose individuality: no embarrassment over touching will do.

(Seisaku via Mizumochi) Hakutoboh Kaji Touhi Escape from Fire 13/14


A compilation of Butoh Exercises

Feel and be moved as if: A house is on fire. A tree is on fire. You panic. Frozen stiff in panic. Trembling. A tree is on fire. It begins to crack. It begins to fall. Escape. Trembling, you look for a way out! Low centre of gravity. Flee! No escape.


In this exercise, the shape of the exact flight (running from the tree) is not important, as long as the knees are kept bowed and the centre of gravity low. The entire width and breadth of the stage or studio should be scoured in a panic driven flight from the fire.

(Seisaku via Mizumochi)


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