Dance of Darkness

The San Francisco Butoh Festival sheds light on an avant-garde Japanese art form

Chalk-white bodies contorted in howling gestures; eyes rolled back into skulls; abstracted limbs divine, grotesque, and alluring; stark eroticism; androgynous metamorphoses set against the earth, wind, fire, and water of the universe -- these are the images of butoh, "the dance of darkness."

Tatsumi Hijikata planted the seeds for the revolutionary Japanese dance in 1959 with an adaptation of novelist Yukio Mishima's Kinjiki. Emphasizing a liberated body-awareness, he shunned balletic and modern techniques and introduced heretical themes of bestiality and homosexuality. Banned by the Modern Dance Association of Japan, Hijikata eventually drew support from dadaists, who supported the medium as it developed underground throughout the '60s. Today, a decade after the founder's passing, butoh is embraced internationally as one of the most profound aberrations of the medium, influencing countless avant-gardists in many idioms.

What is it about butoh that excites artists and audiences from South America to Israel? The fascination could lie in the art form's singular devotion to contacting the inner life of the body. Hijikata once explained, "Thinking about the strangeness of our bodies or manipulating them through various training techniques is not enough. ... We must confront our bodies." His confrontational exercises involved tapping into incidents from the primordial memory -- the moment of conception, the reproduction of cells within the womb, the development of organs, the blood flow of life. Only through the body's continual discovery of self, he argued, could the spirit emerge naturally.

Hijikata felt that movement is derived from the body, rather than applied to it: "This is something that your body teaches itself," he said. For Japan, at that time, this was a radical construct. In the book Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul, Mark Holborn says that Japan was "a culture that had no history of the body at the center of either aesthetic or philosophic preoccupation."

D-net's San Francisco Butoh Festival 1996, running this Sunday, June 9, through the following Sunday, includes films, a talk with some of Hijikata's closest associates, and two programs of butoh dances. Sunday at 2 p.m., three generations of butoh women -- including Akiko Motofuji (Hijikata's widow), Setsuko Yamada, Saga Kobayashi, and Hiroko Tamano -- will talk about Hijikata's work and show films of his dances. That's at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park, and is free with museum admission. D-net and the San Francisco Cinematheque will present more of Hijikata's work on film at the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 10; that's $8. And the fest culminates next weekend, June 13 through 16, with two dance programs at the Cowell Theater, Marina and Buchanan in Fort Mason. Program 1, featuring Motofuji and Yamada, plays Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Program 2, featuring Kobayashi and Tamano, plays Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $13 and $17. For information on the festival, call 824-5044; for tickets to the performances, call 392-4400.

 
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