Texas Tech University

A Book on Butoh: Dancing in the Americas

Calan Welder

November 17, 2020

Esparta Martinez photo Silvestro Black Angel

Well known to artists of all stripes as one of experimentation, innovation, and dissemination, the postwar period is often categorized as a time of anarchistic tendencies in the arts that reacted to the sheer absurdity of large-scale mechanized warfare and social schisms. In Japan, such reactions in dance came specifically in the form of protest art known as butoh.

Tanya Calamoneri, assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, has dedicated much of the last two decades to studying butoh's transformation from a form of protest street art into a dance aesthetic exported across the world to the Americas. Her book, Butoh America, which is set to publish in 2021, profiles contemporary artists who have incorporated butoh's now-recognizable attributes into their own arts as protest.

Created as a Japanese countercultural phenomenon by progenitors Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010) and Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and popularized by performance group Sankai Juku, butoh has grown from its political origins into a distinct form. Calamoneri reflects on the form's development from an abstract protest art into stylized yet literalist tropes of white-painted dancers performing glacially paced movements:

"The white paint is not about nuclear dust. Hijikata wanted to make his performers feel things in real time and thus react 'authentically,' so in one piece, Anma [The Masseurs], he painted their bodies with white gesso, causing their skin to feel clammy and uncomfortable as it dried ... It wasn't supposed to become a form. It was a political statement and it existed in a certain time and space. What is happening now is a mixture of identifying with that root as a lineage and radically different manifestations."

In addition to profiling founding American artists in the U.S. and Mexico, the book features prominent artists of the current generation. Among these are Leimay Ensemble, a Brooklyn-based company of international artists. Their latest work features performers wearing gas masks slowly sinking into sand and confined in plexiglass boxes. "At intervals throughout the piece, a fan is turned on kicking up a sandstorm that literally blots out the dancer. It's harrowing to watch, even on video," Calamoneri explains. Tania Galindo's company Butoh Chilango in Mexico is also profiled in the book as an organization that creates work mining Mexican mythology while confronting contemporary political moments, such as femicide and violence in the country. One such piece centers around a giant, dismembered female body, in which one dancer operates each of the limbs, head, and torso.

While living in the Bay Area of San Francisco, Calamoneri was introduced to a variety of experimental artists that inspired her interdisciplinary research: "All of these artists were blurring lines between dance, theater, and music. Every performer was skilled in at least two disciplines," she says. This interdisciplinary laboratory inspired Calamoneri's research into image and embodiment as she traveled to Germany and Japan while developing her own artistic style.

Calamoneri describes Butoh America as an ambitious project to profile artists in the United States and Mexico who are working outside of disciplinary boundaries, and also have not been written about yet in dance scholarship.

Photo credit: "Espartaco Martinez" by Silvestre Orzuna