The Dance of the Dead: An Evening at The Butohkan in Kyoto

The Dance of the Dead: An Evening at The Butohkan in Kyoto

Kade Delis

When you think of Japan and dancing, kabuki and noh theatre probably come to mind but within Japan's long and illustrious history many different types of dance forms were created and Butoh is one of the more modern ones. Butoh is a form of dance that began in the 1950's and is meant to be an erotic, physical, spiritual and even terrifying form of Japanese performing arts. The Butoh-kan (舞踏館) in Kyoto is one of the few venues where you can see live Butoh performances every week and what you see may shock but also engage you.

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Ima Tenko Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

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Ima Tenko Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

Located on the Sanjo Street of Kyoto near Karasuma Oike Station, this theatre devoted entirely to Butoh occupies a small space where only eight people per night can watch. The building is called a kura which are earthen warehouses built in the latter-half of the Edo period. Despite many riots and rebellions in Kyoto that destroyed much of the city 150 years ago, this kura survived. Inside the theatre feels like an orthodox Japanese environment with wood pillars, tatami floors, and pillows to sit on instead of seats. Because it takes place in such a historic building and Butoh is such an original Japanese dance, any customer arriving is certain to receive an experience one can only get in Japan.

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Outside the Kura Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

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Outside the Kura Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

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Outside the Kura Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

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Inside the Kura Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

Seeing a live performance is a rare opportunity as Butoh shows are hard to find even in Japan. According to the founder of Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata,  it is like, "A corpse standing upright in a desperate bid for life." But Butoh is also meant to be a physical and challenging dance with a Japanese identity. It is very adult-themed and features some nudity, so small children should not come to see this.

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Shamisen Players Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

The name of the Butoh performance was Hisoku, which is a Japanese pale turquoise blue color, and it truly was captivating. When it starts, the room is completely dark with soothing traditional shamisen music played by actual performers. The light then comes on and dancer and choreographer, Ima Tenko, slowly descends down the staircase garbed in a ripped, raggedy kimono, her hair in a traditional geisha hairstyle but tangled and untidy and her body covered in white makeup. She moved in a graciously profound way to the music.

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Ima Tenko Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

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Ima Tenko Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan

Using only the space she had, for around 40 minutes Tenko showed a great seriousness to her craft moving her arms, legs, hands and head in some truly stylized fashions while maintaining the traditional Japanese spirit of calmness and connection to nature. Within the small walls of the kura space, she conveyed an energetic being trying to release herself; similar to an unborn baby in the womb. Her performance seemed to tell an engaging story of a spirit desperately seeking to be one with all types of Hisoku colors, especially water. From the sea to the rivers, even human tears were expressed in her movements. As the dance progressed, her energy intensified as she gradually changed to even more revealing clothes until she was nearly naked, which was part of the show’s goal after all: to shock and engage.

Tenko has been a professional Butoh dancer since the 1980’s performing thousands of times. She had been with the original Butoh group until their breakup in 1994 and has performed solo ever since showing Butoh all over the world. Quite politely, she apologized for giving such a surrealist experience and gave notes explaining that the nudity is meant to be both scandalous and also part of the beauty inside every Japanese woman. She is so good at what she does though, no one in the audience complained about what they had seen.

If your trip to Japan includes some new artistic sightseeing, the Butoh-kan will satisfy. It is great for travelers looking for a lesser-known side of Japanese culture featuring live avant-garde Butoh performances that are not easy to find outside Japan. Everyone’s view of this dance will be different, but as Tenko says, “When they leave, I would like them to carry the spirit of Japan in their thoughts.”   

The Butoh-kan has two performances every Thursday, one at 6 PM and another at 8 PM. It is easy to reserve tickets online on their website. They do sell out quick, so be sure to catch one soon.

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Ima Tenko Photo Courtesy of Butoh-kan