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Don't think, just reflect.

The report by Quentin Chaveriat who came to from Belgium to Seiji Tanaka Butoh Studio in summer 2015.

« Don't think, just reflect »
My Butoh Experience in Japan
Quentin Chaveriat

I had the chance to attend a series of Butoh workshops, held by TANAKA Seiji in his dance studio in Takanohara, Nara, Japan. I took contact with him by e-mail. I am welcome, one of his students is going to be my English translator, another one my host. Butoh becomes my priority, the axis that give sense to my Japanese journey. I take my shoes off, I climb up some wooden stairs, I put my ridiculous gym shorts on, and I raise the curtain. The strong smell of tatamis, some stage clothes, withered flowers, books. All possibilities are now wide opened.
A class by Seiji

Each Seiji Tanaka’s lesson starts with a very simple exercise. We just have to stand and analyse how we feel our body today, which is not the same as yesterday, nor the same of tomorrow. Then, Seiji comes in front of each one of us and he stares at us in the eyes. We have to connect with him as if he was a mirror, involving our whole body, front and back, from the top all through the fingertips and the space in between, and then down till the big toe’s nail. « Back. Fingers. » he repeats tirelessly. A saving reminder. Seiji reflects our bodies and we reflect his own. The heart of the Butoh doctrine could be resumed into this injunction: “Don’t think, just reflect”. Once this point is understood, all the esthetical observations become just a luxury and a path to misunderstandings. Generally, the exercise continues with a walk, a pretext to assume our mission : reflecting space. Greeting the space, then making love with it. It begins by the room, it reaches its four corners, then the objects on its inside, the lights. Furtherly, it extends beyond the walls. The supreme aim of the Butoh dancer must be to reflect the world and, by extension, the entire cosmos. Most of the time, Seiji dabbles in the exercise first, before inviting us to try as well. No words can describe his flawless ability to concentrate, made tangible by his captivating presence. He always seems very close to levitation. When he walks, his spine remains straight keeping his peripheral energies in strain. But the whole body is powerfully engaged. Our mission of reflection involves all five senses, including those that tend to be forgotten. Throughout the different sessions, Seiji persistently highlights the importance of listening. We can gain a lot by paying attention to every noise that we can perceive; whether it be the surrounding sounds or the classical music that he puts on his Hi-Fi system, but also his own voice, the whispers from the street, the cars that pass by, till the persistent noise of the air-conditioner, contrasting with the silences that may precede or follow. But it is not enough to take awareness of those sounds just through the thought, as we generally do in our daily lives. We must listen to them with the entire body. Similarly, it is also about looking at the space with the entire body, as if there were millions of little eyes placed on each pore of our skin. When the dance struggles to free itself, we must not try to find the key in our mind or in our will, in order to unlock it, but in everything we can capture from the outside. The body collapses and then has to get up. Yet, the force of gravity makes this operation complicated. To avoid losing delicateness, Seiji advises us to find a dialogue with this gravity, and not to be afraid to go back down to the ground and draw the energy that we need to raise up again. In order to do that, it is necessary to be sufficiently receptive to the different signs. There’s an interesting anecdote on this subject that happened to another student. At the end of the exercise she could not be able to raise up again, contrarily to what was being requested. She told that she felt incapable of opening herself enough to receive that energy. So Seiji congratulated her for her honesty, which is a cardinal value in the Butoh doctrine. Seiji likes to spotlight the difference between the “watching body” and the “watched body”. For that reason, subsequently, he places each one of us in both situations. First, he asks a guinea-pig to stare at a point on the wall, then he asks to some other dancers to stand around and stare at him. The watched body becomes imprinted by a peculiar brittleness, which is undoubtedly the same that Hijikata looked for when, for his performance “Anma (The masseur)” : he put young inexperienced dancers on stage, who dealt to find a place for their bodies in this uncomfortable situation.

On the first day of lesson we are only four students. Seiji rearranges therefore a different lesson, setting a totally free individual improvisation as climax. As prelude, a book is being opened: some pictures of OHNO Kazuo dancing wholeheartedly despite his ninety years of age. Seiji insists on the importance of being brave. Never giving up. “Keep going”. Choosing insecurity, going towards what we don’t know, what we cannot control. It also means allowing the unconscious to express itself. “Ankoku Butoh” in Japanese means “the dance of the dark body”. Contrarily to a lot of common beliefs, it is not about playing with the esthetical “dark” codes, like “gothic” subculture does, but it is about opening up to a language that we do not understand since it comes before us. Moving towards darkness means moving towards something that we do not know and that scares us, but still keeping a “brave heart”. This does not mean that we have to jump off the window, but we have to keep going forward as if we were walking on a tightrope. A good Butoh dancer must also be able to preserve a certain amount of craziness and let it express freely. Butoh could be seen as a corporal extension of Outsider Art. We are therefore encouraged to cultivate a sort of happy idiocy. During another lesson, Seiji also points out the importance of the imaginary. Butoh is a clash between reality’s intensity and imaginary’s power. In this regard, I will remember above all the experience of Ayaka, a student from Kinki University, Osaka, with whom I practiced Butoh improvisation. She evoked a feeling of rebirth, a retreat inside the mother’s womb, followed by new birth and a fast crossing from childhood to adolescence, until the encounter of a beautiful Prince Charming coming to take her away. It is not rare that some kind of prenatal and intrauterine feelings are being recalled during Butoh sessions, among other “mental pictures” that come from our corporal memory.

Butoh is not a virtuoso dance but a share between the “watching” and the “being watched”. In order to experience it, Seiji forms some couples of dancers. We have to perform by turns a precise sequence: start by sitting down, then stand up, move back, make a turn on oneself, fall, stand up again, move back and thank. The important point in this exercise is to get in contact with the body of the partner, to reflect it. Stunningly, we realise that the sight of the watching body can actually be as captivating as the sight of the one being watched. By dint of connection, the solo can indeed turn into a passive and staggering duet. “This is my body. This is my soul. This is my love ». These are the words that Seiji whispers to my ears, thereby showing me the stake of each instant of Butoh. The “here and now” is essential. Each step must be like our very first step, each moment has to be lived as it was carrying our whole life. Seiji asks us to think about the number of births and deaths occurring worldwide during the time of a single step. We have to be the witnesses of all that could be contained in one second. All this must be done during each part of a sequence but also during the delicate gap between two different actions. The characteristic slowness of Butoh is the result of this quality of existence. Butoh’s temporality could be seen as a discrepancy compared to our everyday life temporality, since the apparently most insignificant moment is now tasted as if it was a unique and precious dish. Ideally, the faster movements should acquire the same quality as the slow ones. OHNO Kazuo stated that the essential of Butoh dance happens inside the body; those imperceptible movements for a negligent eye never cease to linger on a constant flow, in the same way a long hand on a clock keeps turning. Moving one step further: the mediation through a foreign object to our body. In this instance, Seiji gives us the opportunity to try the exercise of the rose become famous by the former masters OHNO Kazuo and his son Yoshito, Seiji’s teacher. After having given to each one of us an artificial flower, he asks us to walk straight ahead while holding it gently. Our body cannot be the body of someone holding a rose, but the one of someone who is guided by her. The perception of space is henceforth being done through the flower. The flower feels the space. Then he asks us to lay down on the ground and give birth to that rose, as if she was partaking the same source of life. After that, we have to get up while always keeping a very intimate relationship with her. For the beginners, he advices to keep a short distance between the heart and the flower, in order not to break this connection. That does not mean that this distance must be kept evenly throughout the whole improvisation, but it is absolutely necessary not to forget that the flower is part of us. It is a very difficult exercise to understand and it requires a lot of practice.

Seiji Tanaka’s classes often end with a group exercise called “the full moon”. We stand in a circle and we hold each other’s hand. Little by little, a slight movement naturally sprouts up and is then transmitted from a body to another, just like a pebble, when thrown into a pond, creates small swirls that slowly expand into waves. This exercise is useful to understand that we do not have to look for originality and, even more importantly, we do not have to dance by ourselves but we have to let ourselves “be danced” by what surrounds us. Another variation of this exercise consists in starting by sitting down and then raising up without letting go the hand of our neighbour. If the ultimate goal of Butoh is to find freedom ( “How to become free” writes Seiji in capital letters on his precious notebook), we are not lacking of tools to pursue this quest. Besides the infinite number of sensations that we can explore, the fact of experiencing the constraints posed by pre-organised sequences can be useful for us to form a basis, a launching pad that will let us jump into the vertigo of freedom. Find liberty in constraint. And when we feel anxious about having a virgin body, we have to remember that we dance ceaselessly when we stand up. We have got to trust this dance and dare the disequilibrium. HIJIKATA’s Butoh was a dance of rebellion and transgression. It raised against the influence of the Western culture spreading into Japan after World War II, even though it drew the subversive side of the European avant-garde dregs; and it equally raised against the traditional forms of the Japanese theatre, well-represented by the Kabuki and the No, anachronistic and codified to such an extent that they could not express what a universal body could be, including for example the deformed and wounded one of a rice picker from Tohoku. If those claims do not have the same legitimacy anymore, where can the subversive spirit of Butoh be found today? I think I have got a possible answer. We do not necessarily have to break the taboos at any cost, but we should never forget that Butoh is first of all the dance of freedom. It is furthermore for this reason that the famous dancer TANAKA Min wishes to not be subjected to the “Butoh” denomination anymore since, in his opinion, this label can lead into fixing this art into a single form. I have observed the dance of an old woman who, with a delightful candour, joyfully surpassed Seiji’s instructions. She undoubtedly understood that sometimes it is beneficial to learn how to be a good “bad student”. I do not think that Butoh is an asceticism but I rather see it as a florescence, almost a feast. Striving too much for perfection can indeed work against us by recalling the intellect to re-emerge, and that can easily look evident on the body.

After every Seiji’s lesson, each one of us has the opportunity to share, by turns, his or her own feelings about today’s lesson. This allows him to give us some feedbacks, reassure us for certain fears, or share some reflections about Butoh. They often turn out into fascinating discussions. During a session, I have experienced some difficulties to plunge into the work, since I got stuck on what I could not understand, and as consequence I closed myself to every sensation like an oyster. After the following lesson, which has been marvellously easier, I brought up the difference between the impression of an inescapable closure and the one of a joyful opening. Seiji has then replied that between this two states there were a thousand of other ones to explore. A flower can be closed or bloomed, but every stage from the bud to the flowering is important.


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