Eyes searching for something, their bodies spare and painted white, some with clothes that seemed blood-stained, others naked, the students float in from different directions. Behind them, their teacher’s words soar, “Imagine you’re liquid, flow, flow in every direction, flow effortlessly.” In the darkness of the night, atop a hill near Lakagot village in Himachal Pradesh, they whirled around in stark, hyper-controlled movements, like people possessed, their eerie sounds of ululation breaking the stillness of the night.
It wasn’t a session of black magic in progress, though. These were students at the Subbody Resonance Butoh Himalaya, a dance academy started in 2005 by 60-year-old Rhizome Lee, which teaches butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre that encompasses a diverse range techniques and movements.
Butoh, or the dance of darkness, was first performed in 1959 by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. It was their response to Westernised, overly stylised movements of Japanese dance. The grotesque gestures, unpolished movements, shaven heads and white body paint was a shock to the otherwise refined Japanese aesthetics.
Butoh can be performed in the presence or absence of an audience. It calls for free-spirited performances at unsettling locations. Hijikata and Ohno shared the subversiveness in their dance style, but over the years, both developed their own styles. Hijikata’s dance was more based on Dadaism and surrealism. Ohno, on the other hand, was a humanist. He danced and communicated with his audience in identifiable characters. In Nourit Masson-Sékiné and Jean Viala’s book Shades of Darkness, Ohno is regarded as “the soul of butoh,” while Hijikata is seen as its “architect”. Hijikata was more like a technician, while Ohno was a nurturing figure who influenced solo artists.
In the 1980s when dancers began performing outside Japan, butoh began to gain some popularity. During one such performance in Seattle, Washington, a member of the popular butoh dance group, Sankai Jaku, died when a rope broke. The tragedy was widely reported and brought butoh into the limelight. Even though it has been accepted as a performance art outside Japan, after its initial flourish, butoh remains relatively niche even in Japan.
After having travelled to various places, Lee chose this quiet place in Jogibara village, close to McLeodganj, and set up the school. Now, it offers long-term courses and workshops.“Butoh is the most honest dance form. It defines you. It is about resonating with yourself and your surroundings. It is about putting your ego aside. You don’t move, something moves you,” says Jaime Martinez, a Spaniard in his early thirties, who took a course in Lee’s school earlier this year.
Butoh takes inspiration from dark themes such as natural disasters, disease and war. The central concept of butoh is to avert fixity and accept one’s self in its entirety — the body and its many crises. Lee, a butoh dancer for over four decades, says, “It is like meditation. We research inside, bring out our weaknesses, stop thinking and enter a subconscious world. The essence of butoh is resonance. In classical meditation, you don’t move, and try to detach yourself. Here, we achieve detachment by moving our body. We take off the superficial mask we wear for the world and dance for anything in the universe.”
When Lee was in university in Kyoto in Japan, Hijikata’s group came to perform there. Lee was struck by the dichotomy it offered and was keen to take it up. But he was married already and had just become a father. He needed a job and a steady livelihood. He waited 25 years, painstakingly putting together savings that would help him pursue his dream some day. Once his son joined work, Lee finally decided to go back to butoh.
Under Lee’s careful guidance, students from all around the world come to learn and practise butoh in this remote hill station. There are not many takers in India — in all these years, there have been less than 10 Indian students at his school, but it enjoys a steady popularity among Europeans and Asians outside the subcontinent. Lee lives on the first floor, a cosy Japanese style living area and there are rooms for short-stay students on the top floor.
During the course of their workshops, the students are made to perform for the public every Friday, in school premises or out on the streets. In one such performance, the dancers performed on a garbage patch on the streets, and received mixed reactions from the locals. Many villagers, who were unaware of the form, did not appreciate the ugliness it projected or the starkness it entailed.
Gio Dust, 39, who now calls herself Satiji, moved to McLeodganj from South Korea about four years ago, learned the art form and now gives private classes. She says, “Our body has a lot of memories and it wants to perform them.”
In her opinion, a butoh dancer resonates with the environment. Each performance is affected by the surroundings, the presence or absence of an audience, weather and mood. When she moves, Satiji says she tries to detach herself from the world around her and delve deep into herself. “Butoh, for me, is an alternative way of communication. I communicate those emotions for which I’m short of words,” she says.
In his book, The Intensity of Nothingness, well-known butoh dancer Iwana Masaki says, “I have never heard of a butoh dancer entering a competition. Every butoh performance itself is an ultimate expression; there is no, and cannot be, second or third places. If butoh dancers were content with less than the ultimate, they would not be actually dancing butoh, for real butoh, like real life itself, cannot be given rankings”.