Book Review > Butoh: Cradling Empty Space

· Creative Expression, Retreats, Reviews

Reviewed by Hokyu JL Aronson

The lights dim in a black box theater while the stage remains illuminated at opposing angles. Right away nothing happens. You become aware of your own expectations, the state of your digestion, the other audience members. Perhaps they know something you don’t. And then, slowly, a powdery white figure begins to move. Crouched low, barely covered in ragged, stained garments. Have they been there the whole time, even when you entered the room? Or did they slip in while you and your friend sat down, checking your phones once more before turning off the alerts? Was the performer listening in on the audience’s conversations? How could they have been crouched there so long, not moving? Wait, are there two of them?

There is no music, at least not at first, but the ambient sounds have taken a prominent place in your awareness as there is still less to see in the visual field then you would hope. But the forms are moving now. You can’t really call them performers, you’re not yet sure what’s being performed. Certainly you wouldn’t call them dancers. The word ‘people’ even seems like too much of a presumption. But as they are born on their feet and begin exploring the space with the upper portion of their bodies, it feels as though these figures have emerged from the earth and are reacquainting themselves with life after an epochal hiatus. But what’s more, they are expressing what it has been like in that underland, what they endured, how death feels from death’s side.

Yoko Asikawa in Hitogata (Human Shape) – Tokyo, June 1976.

But this is already producing meaning, more meaning then you have actually been given. You reorient to the present when you realize that the performers are indeed hyper-present in themselves, even in their spectral manifestations. How else could they move so slowly, only to puncture those crawls with desperate bursts of gesture? You also notice the precision of each figure and see that they are moving in conversation with each other, sometimes mirroring, sometimes just moving out of the way though they don’t seem to see each other. Could this actually be choreographed? And why do you find it so gripping? What are these memories and associations welling up within you just from watching this mysterious scene?

This is the world of butoh, or at least one quasi-quintessential representation of it. Since butoh’s formation in post-war Japan, it has migrated across the globe, deeply associated with Japanese avant-garde, even as it has continued to evolve on other shores. Butoh is not explicitly related to Zen but they both bear their share of historical weight. One could say about either that there exists a tension between emulating the forms and methods of previous generations while allowing the embodied experience of practitioners to guide the way forward. They are both frequently misrepresented, though one could hardly blame a non practicing observer for misunderstanding something so rooted in interior exploration. 

Vangeline, a French butoh artist and educator based in New York City, is one of the leading figures in the current generation of butoh innovators. She’s also led a number of butoh workshops at Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of NYC and offered a more in depth retreat at the Monastery this Summer, July 7 – 10, 2022. Though originally trained in a variety of classical and modern western dance traditions, Vangeline discovered butoh in 1999 and it quickly captured her imagination before fully taking over her life.

She has spent the past two decades studying with a variety of butoh masters across North America, Europe and Japan. At a certain point she began leading classes of her own, making butoh accessible to New Yorkers through weekly workshops and intricate performances. Those efforts led to the formation of the Vangeline Theater and the New York Butoh Institute, organizations dedicated to the preservation and celebration of butoh, and featuring a rotating troupe of performers, many of whom got their start under Vangeline’s stewardship. She also founded the Dream a Dream initiative, bringing trauma-informed butoh classes to incarcerated people. The classes serve similar functions for inmates as they do for anyone practicing butoh wherein the participant is given permission to safely explore a range of feelings and experiences that might otherwise be closed off. 

“Much like psychoanalysis, butoh seeks to uncover unconscious impulses and aims at redirecting them constructively into creative movement…”

— Vangeline

At some point along the way, Vangeline noticed a lack in the literature accompanying butoh’s dissemination. In early 2020, she released Butoh: Cradling Empty Space, drawing on dozens of interviews with first, second, and third generation butoh performers, alongside dozens of photos, charts, and her own observations of gender and power dynamics within various teaching techniques. The book also brings together scientific and cross-cultural psychological perspectives on a wide variety of elements that are worth considering on behalf of any dance form, but have not yet been widely applied to butoh. These include discussions of motor coordination, neuroplasticity, the functions of memory, impulse control, and for good measure, quantum physics. 

Vangeline, photo by Michael Blase.

Before the pandemic, Vangeline had collaborated with scientists to monitor the brainwaves of butoh performers within the flow of their craft. Alpha, theta and delta are usually defined as altered states of consciousness, and have been observed in skilled butoh performers, rehearsing while connected to EEG devices. Therefore, if butoh is indeed an exploration of the unconscious body, most likely characterized by altered states of consciousness, it is fair to assume that the butoh state, generally speaking, differs significantly from beta, or ordinary waking consciousness. This is heady stuff, to be sure, but just one of the many avenues Vangeline wanders in her investigations.

Balancing all of these disparate elements is a high wire act and readers may find themselves a tad dubious as Vangeline guides the narrative around each interdisciplinary twist and turn. It is possible to look at a subject from too many perspectives. However, the author never falls short of the task of marshaling ample evidence to support the connections she seeks to demonstrate. The prose is always engaging, smart, and rigorously researched. Just when you think you’ve learned more than you ever cared to find out about this curious and still somewhat obscure art form, you get pulled back in by a fascinating discussion of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems or the feedback loop of various postures.

Perhaps the strongest and most appealing aspect of Cradling Empty Space is Vangeline’s eloquence in defining this supposedly undefinable art form. She states at the outset of the book that journalists’ attempts to pigeonhole butoh as a “dance of darkness” or simply an absurdist reaction to the horrors of WWII miss the mark. This is especially the case for non-Japanese writers who tend to employ the language of the exotic to sequester butoh into an impenetrable box. But Vangeline proves numerous times throughout her book that it is indeed possible to demystify the artform without diluting its power. 

In fact, like any artform, a better understanding can help elucidate what the viewer is beholding for the sake of a richer experience on the audience’s side, while also serving as an invitation for those bold enough to take it up themselves as a practice. She writes, “Butoh is the dance of duality: life and death, light and darkness, consciousness and unconsciousness. Yet, at its core, like Janus the Roman god, butoh transcends this dichotomy and is also the dance of passage and transition.”

Kazuo Ohno, Photographed by Eikoh Hosoe

Vangeline approaches meaning-making through her own experiences along with the voices of academics and, most significantly, butoh’s founders and early adherents. The two towering figures of Japanese butoh were Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata who began exploring new forms of performance and dance in this vein in the late 1950s. Both of them resisted burdening butoh with rigid formalization yet nonetheless left clues in their teachings and writings about how they approached their work and how they felt younger performers should be trained. Hijikata, considered the more radical and pedagogically demanding of the two, asked of butoh students, “Why don’t they drop a step ladder deep into their own bodies and climb down it?” While all dance forms require a familiarity with interior dimensions, clearly the work of butoh is more archaeological. According to Ohno’s son who collaborated with both men, “Tatsumi Hijikata used to say that butoh is a miraculous union between our essence, or what doesn’t change, with our ever-changing human emotions.”

While Ohno and Hijikata, have continued to be studied, emulated and lionized, Vangeline makes a point of highlighting the roles of women performers and choreographers in the history of butoh and the ways in which their work has often been diminished or otherwise left out of official narratives, despite their outsized influence in the development and dissemination of the artform. She skillfully develops this theme throughout the book and goes on to explore power dynamics within butoh training, particularly as they relate to gender. Beyond the book itself, Vangeline has been an outspoken voice in the butoh community as it has reckoned these last few years with a legacy of power abuses. Perhaps these abuses have been no greater in the world of butoh than in any other patriarchal setting. But the discourse of this reckoning, both within Cradling Empty Space and elsewhere, can be instructive to any excavation of the strengths and pitfalls of the teacher-student relationship.

I found this exploration to be particularly insightful given contemporary questions of power dynamics within spiritual communities. It is perhaps the most concerning but certainly not the only overlap between butoh and Zen. As mentioned previously, both wrestle with the implications of tradition and lineage while practitioners push for reforms and evolution. And yet, there are a number of other elements that butoh and Zen have in common and Vangeline writes about these with equal energy and insight. To its practitioners, butoh is very much a path of self-cultivation, a philosophical approach to life and art as much or perhaps even more so than a performance for others.

Taketeru Kudo in “Stray Birds” – Zen Mountain Monastery, 2014.

Some of these commonalities include the dissolution of ego, taking responsibility for everything one finds in the subconscious, radical embodiment, the power of silence, and returning to the primary or “original” state. Alongside these themes, Vangeline also discusses the differences between Japanese and western approaches to practice and training in a way that reminded me of similar discussions within the world of Zen. 

“In the end,” Vangeline writes, “a butoh dancer’s body is at a crossroads between vertical and horizontal planes of reality, diving down inside itself, suspending time, while carrying the body toward an inevitable moment of death or transformation. Since the beginning of human history, the horizontal plane has represented human existence, while the vertical has symbolized spirit. Butoh is perfectly designed for this encounter between material and immaterial planes of existence.” 

While we shouldn’t overstate the connection between these terms and Zen’s “relative and absolute,” there is certainly quite a bit of overlap. Both serve to direct practitioners towards repeated encounters with their embodied selves beyond all conditioning, employing skillful methods handed down from generation to generation. And as with Zen, there is a recognition of the need to learn from these experiences and integrate them with one’s everyday life. To that end, Cradling Empty Space is a sourcebook excavating butoh’s richness and depth and a textbook chronicling the pursuit of that integration. We are unlikely to find a more knowledgeable and impassioned guide through these dimensions as Vangeline and her new excellent book.

Butoh: Cradling Empty Space is available through Vangeline’s website.

To learn more about Zen Mountain Monastery, click here.

Vangeline in “Butoh Eclipse” – Zen Mountain Monastery, 2019.

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