“Groundbreaking and compelling” Review of my book in Metropolis by Rob Schwartz
Metropolis／メトロポリス (Tokyo) March 29, 2012, Issue 940
The contemporary Japanese dance form of butoh, originally called ankoku butoh (loosely, “dance of darkness”) is the only post-war style of dance from these shores that has made a significant impact internationally. In fact, among worldwide contemporary dancers and performance artists, butoh is considered quite influential and strikingly compelling. Strange, then, that the form is not better known among Japanese people themselves or the world at large.
One explanation for the latter is the relative dearth of literature on the art in European languages—including English. Stephen Barbar’s introductory work Hijikata: Revolt of the Body (Solar Books, 2010) and Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura’s impressionistic text Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo (Routledge, 2006) have gone part of the way in bridging the gap (though the latter has been criticized as being inaccurate and subjective). The scholar Miryam Sas (a professor at UC Berkeley) has written some insightful articles and book chapters, but no monograph solely on the topic.
Bruce Baird’s work, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, is an epic leap forward in archiving, describing and analyzing the important art form of butoh, in English. Based on Baird’s Ph.D thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, this highly detailed study of butoh’s founder, Hijikata Tatsumi, took him 13 years to complete. Butoh itself is notoriously difficult to summarize, as Baird notes:
“Observers seem compelled to verbal contortions to articulate what they see: ‘the grotesque and beautiful, the nightmarish and the poetic, the erotic and the austere, the streetwise and the spiritual.’”
Indeed, butoh must be seen to be comprehended, and spoken descriptions all fall short. For this reason Baird goes to great lengths to describe precisely Hijikata’s dances, as well as relate the historical and artistic conditions and ideas that informed them.
Briefly, butoh started when Hijikata, as well as Ohno Yoshito—son of dancer and collaborator Ohno Kazuo—performed Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki, based on the Yukio Mishima novel) on May 24, 1959. Erotic (with explicit references to gay sex), transgressive and shocking, the presentation can be described as performance art today rather than dance, and it was from this outline that Hijikata went on to develop what can rightly be called a dance form (if an abstract, mutable and conceptual one). Some of the more recent butoh groups have gained greater recognition than Hijikata himself. These include Sankai Juku (which has toured the US many times) and Dairakudakan (founded by Maro Akaji).
Baird’s book accomplishes three necessary tasks in laying the groundwork for butoh scholarship. First, Hijikata is put back in the spotlight. Though widely acknowledged as the founder of butoh, because he never toured outside of Japan, did most of his important performances in the 1960s and early ’70s, and died over 25 years ago, few know the particulars of his life and art. Baird’s work explains why he is so crucial. Second, Baird addresses the frenzied and anarchic years between 1959 and 1968, when Hijikata presented his seminal performance Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: The Revolt of the Body. Previously, practically nothing has been written in non-Japanese languages about this formative ten-year period. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the author gives a conceptual framework for the Hijikata method. Though butoh appears improvised, Hijikata actually created and catalogued a series of positions and moves used in the art. This canon is known as the Hijikata method (or butoh-fu), and has never been outlined in English before. In fact, even some familiar with butoh are not aware of it.
These achievements, as well as incisive overall analysis of Hijikata Tatsumi’s work, make this book both groundbreaking and compelling. It’s not an exaggeration to say Baird has laid the foundation for butoh study in the west, and provided an invaluable resource for all those interested in the dance form.
“Breton would be proud” Review of my book in Japan Forum by Hosea Hirata
Japan Forum Vol. 24, no. 4 (Nov. 2012), 504-506.
A review of Bruce Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012, xv + 293 pp.
Hijikata Tatsumi, globally one of the most influential Japanese artists of the last century (if not the most), occupies the center stage of this monograph. It is truly astonishing to see how an avant-garde dance Hijikata invented in the late 1950s and the 1960s in Tokyo has spread to all comers of the world, and is now known everywhere as butoh. There have been a few books on butoh in English but none has focused exclusively on this seemingly singular genius, Hijikata Tatsumi. This book, however, is not a critical biography. Although it contributes much to our understanding of the history of butoh, its main concern is interpretation—how to read Hijikata’s performances as well as his writings. Therein lies a fundamental problem for anyone who intends to study avant-garde art. What is the point of interpreting something that openly flaunts its anti-hermeneutic nature? How do we find any meaning in an art object that screams at us that it has no meaning?
The author, Bruce Baird, is well aware of this absurd situation as he begins the book with these words: ‘Butoh defies description’ (p. 1). Nevertheless, he earnestly engages in describing what Hijikata left for us in the next 218 pages of the book. Academically speaking, this is the most fruitful result of conscientious research on one of the most bizarre art forms on stage. Phenomenologically speaking, it simply lacks the power of a butoh performance that might change your life. But that is the fate of any academic work on the avant-garde. The difficulty that Baird must have encountered initially in this project goes beyond this fundamental absurdity of dealing with an avant-garde art. If the subject were avant-garde poetry, we would still have the poems intact before us to study. Unlike poems, dances disappear unless recorded. In this age of ubiquitous video cameras, it surprises us that so few moments of Hijikata’s dances were ever filmed. Baird, thus, needed to imaginatively reconstruct Hijikata’s early performances through bits and pieces of information scattered in reviews, notes and photos. Baird’s painstakingly careful reconstructions of Hijikata’s performances are to be highly valued.
The book mainly traces Hijikata’s major works, starting with Forbidden Colors (1959), through his influential Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body (1968), and culminating in his magnum opus Great Dance Mirror of Burnt Sacrifice—Performance to Commemorate the Second Unity of the School of the Dance of Utter Darkness—Twenty-seven Nights for Four Seasons (1972). In the penultimate chapter, Baird also analyzes Hijikata’s surrealist ‘memoir’ Ailing Terpsichore (1977-1978). Somehow inspired by Mishima Yukio’s novel of the same title, Hijikata’s ‘first work’ (p. 15) was staged on 24, May 1959. It was obviously designed to shock the audience. Baird quotes a description:
In this piece a young man (Yoshito Ôno) has sexual relations with a hen, after which another man (Tatsumi Hijikata) makes advances to him. There is no music. The images are striking: the young man smothers the animal between his thighs to symbolize the act. (p. 16)
Apparently many people in the audience walked out in disgust. Now, how do we handle something like this ‘academically’? Baird’s strategy is exemplary, though it may appear counter-intuitive. Our (hetero-normal, anti-pedophiliac) instinct may tell us to walk away. There is nothing to understand. It is simply, and singularly, weird and disgusting. And this effect might have been what Hijikata was intending. But Baird is patient. He contextualizes this performance within what was culturally and even politically happening in the ‘contentious era’ (p. 17) and convinces us that it could be read as a critique against the heteronormal society, or any custom and convention that binds our body in a certain way.
As we read on, we learn the fascinating history of Hijikata’s collaborations with other avant-gardists of Japan in the 1960s. In one of the ‘happenings’ in which Hijikata participated, the Dadaist Kazakura Shô branded his own chest with a hot iron hook. Hijikata apparently helped brand him again even after Kazakura fainted. Baird analyzes such avant-garde events in terms of ‘scandalous psyche-marking experiences’ (p. 66) or a search for ‘actuality (akuchuariti)’, which he believes was a key term circulating among the artists and intellectuals of the 1960s, including Mishima who wrote an essay ‘Crisis Dance’ for Hijikata. Essentially, ‘actuality’ indicated a new reality disposed of all socially and culturally assigned meanings. We also learn that Hijikata was deeply indebted to some pivotal French writers, including Breton, Genet, Proust, and Artaud. Especially fruitful is Baird’s comparison of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Hijikata’s butoh. Baird sees that while Artaud seems to orient his theatre toward an absolute state of nonmeaning, Hijikata was ultimately concerned with ‘the possibility of communicating ideas with other people’ (p. 135). Herein lies the very raison d’etre of Baird’s book: understanding in the face of something that refuses our understanding. Baird proposes a number of counterarguments to the current conceptions of butoh. One of the trickiest conceptions of butoh is that it is uniquely Japanese and is about the Japanese body. In fact, Hijikata seems to have gone through his own ‘return to Japan’, so to speak, departing from his youthful fascination with things French and re-engaging with his home in Tohoku and with his childhood memory of his protective mother, who was often abused by his father. Yet, Baird, as his careful analysis of the event titled Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body shows, remains steadfast in not allowing such essentialism in assessing Hijikata’s legacy. I believe that one of the best arguments Baird makes in this book comes from his grasp of surrealism and its fundamental mechanism, which he sees present in Hijikata’s every work: juxtaposition of multiple and diverse realities and the resulting tension. This tension could be interpreted in terms of aesthetics, ethics,
social power structures, gender, sexuality, or one’s (national) identity. Now, because of this book, I am convinced that Hijikata must be one of the very best manifestations of surrealism in the world. Breton would be extremely proud of Hijikata and his legacy, including this book.
© 2012, Hosea Hirata
“Essential” Review in Choice by Coleen Lanki
Baird, Bruce. Hijikata Tatsumi and butoh: dancing in a pool of gray grits. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 293p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780230120402, $95.00. Reviewed in 2012 Oct CHOICE.
The art of butoh is so diverse and incomprehensible that it can never be completely described by the written word. But Baird (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) has come close. He has crafted a wonderful study of the origins, development, and heart and body of butoh by following its growth through the journey of its central founder, Hijikata Tatsumi. Through Baird’s painstaking research and fascinating analysis, the reader gains insight into Hijikata’s choreographies, his aesthetic, and his philosophies. Baird looks at Hijikata’s butoh through “the body” and the “Japanese people,” placing Hijikata’s insanely physical art in time and place, connecting it to the changing society of Japan since the 1950s. Baird’s analysis of Hijikata’s work is illuminating, but the book also offers firsthand accounts and photos of Hijikata’s dances, quotes from his own writings, and samples of Hijikata’s choreographic “movement instructions”–thus allowing readers to make up their own minds about the significance of these performances. Baird’s book is of great importance to anyone interested in butoh, the performing arts, the avant-garde, or Japanese society. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, researchers, and faculty. – C. Lanki, University of the Fraser Valley
“Meticulously researched description and analysis” Review in Asian Theater Journal by Rosemary Candelario
Rosemary Candelario. “Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits by Bruce Baird (review).” Asian Theatre Journal 30, no. 1 (2013): 263-266.
HIJIKATA TATSUMI AND BUTOH: DANCING IN A POOL OF GRAY GRITS. By Bruce Baird. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 310 pp.; 59 illus. Cloth, $95.00.
In 1984 New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described butoh—newly arrived in the United States from Japan via France—as “a highly theatrical form” that is “a compound of the grotesque and the beautiful, the nightmarish and the poetic, the erotic and the austere, the streetwise and the spiritual.” Despite butoh’s contemporary ubiquity and wide-ranging influences on contemporary dancers and performers, knowledge about the dance’s history, and particularly the development of the form by Hijikata (1928–1986) from his first choreographed work in 1959 until his death in 1986, remains sparse, growing surprisingly little over the last three decades. Baird aims to remedy this situation with a meticulously researched description and analysis of Hijikata’s most significant choreographic and textual productions in his excellent new book. A particular strength of Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh is Baird’s contextualization of the artist’s work in Japanese historical, political, and artistic contexts, especially important today when the form is often essentialized as Japanese even as it is universalized—by dancers, critics, and audiences alike.
The book follows a chronological account of Hijikata’s artistic production, beginning with his first piece of choreography, 1959’s Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki). From early on, Hijikata was a voracious consumer of other artists’ work, from which he freely took inspiration. His first work, for example, took its title and theme of male homosexuality from the 1953 novel by Mishima Yukio. Many of Hijikata Tatsumi’s early works were presented in shared concerts with other artists. The programs for these concerts featured essays by Hijikata alongside texts by noted writers and artists, including Mishima. At these events—or “experiences,” as Hijikata named them—performance and text, writing and movement bumped up against one another, disagreeing and taking inspiration, theorizing and enacting the other. Together they constituted a project to grapple with a society that required its members to manage a surfeit of information in an increasingly competitive environment in order to understand and even alter the artistic practices and social norms of the day in a quest for actuality. Baird attempts to restage these vital and contentious dialogues between performance and text, the body and the word, on the pages of his book in order to capture how butoh was developed in the heady mix of artistic experimentation and foment in Tokyo in the 1960s. A downside of this approach is that the dances sometimes become buried in, rather than explicated by, the texts (including posters and programs) that surrounded them. Of course, this may have also been the effect that they had on the audiences at the time. The dances may have been as overdetermined for their viewers as their descriptions are for Baird’s readers.
Within a year, Hijikata abandoned the choreographic approach used for Forbidden Colors in which the dancers execute recognizable movements (walking, running, watching, handing a chicken from one person to the next, two men rolling together in simulation of sodomy) in service of a relatively transparent narrative. His experiments instead turned to fundamentally altering the uses, techniques, and significations of the body. Baird signals this transition through the opposition between what he describes as “mimetic” dances and movement in which Hijikata began exploring “bending joints in the wrong way,” a phrase the author uses as shorthand to signal the choreographer’s attempt to mobilize a corporeality utterly in opposition to societal or artistic conventions.
When dealing with a period of work that is commonly thought of as Hijikata’s “return to Japan,” Baird challenges this work as simple nostalgia for the rural Tohoku of Hijikata’s youth. He argues that projects like the photo series with Eikoh Hosoe collected in Kamaitachi (1969) are not a celebration of rural Japan, as they have often been interpreted, but instead are a continuation of the critiques in which Hijikata was already deeply engaged. If the artist was concerned with the socialization of the body, Baird astutely observes, “Eventually he had to deal with the fact that much of the socialization of his body had occurred in a place called Japan” (p. 51). The author discerns in this body of work a sharp criticism of Japanese society.
In the chapter “My Mother Tied Me on Her Back,” Baird argues that the multilayered and multivalent aspects of Hijikata’s earlier performances, in which the movement was but one aspect, now began to be condensed into the bodies of the dancers. In other words, in earlier performances the dancing body provided but one layer of the information and action that the audience would have to wade through in search of meaning. Beginning with Hosotan (1972), it was Hijikata’s dancers themselves who were called upon to negotiate multiple layers of information in the form of several concurrent movement instructions—including image sources, physical directives, movement tone, and so on—that they were required to hold in tension simultaneously in their bodies as they performed. Rather than engaging in athletic or shocking movements, they now embodied juxtaposition, fragmentation, and tension. Baird’s deepest insights into butoh come in the chapter “The Possibility Body,” in which he explores Hijikata’s new methods for generating movement vocabulary and novel operations for structuring dances from the perspective of the dancers and the audience. Here he draws from interviews with Hijikata’s dancers as well as the dancers’ own notes and writings about Hijikata’s surrealist creative process in order to elucidate what kind of body butoh cultivates and how the dance effects transformation. While doing this, Baird notably takes the opportunity to simultaneously clear away mystifying tendencies that have accrued around the form even as he insists on the form’s resistance to simplification and explication. Its impossible complexity and multiple conceivable meanings are precisely the point.
Baird gives sparse treatment to Hijikata’s artistic productions after 1972’s highpoint of Hosotan, discussing in depth only the surrealist memoirs Ailing Terpsichore (serialized 1977–1978) and 1976’s performance Human Shape (Hitogata). Baird’s explications of Hijikata’s written texts are subtle and nuanced, providing sensitive translations of passages that give non–Japanese speakers a strong sense of how the choreographer engaged in wordplay with Chinese characters much the same way he sought and crafted multivalent movement images. I am left wondering when Hijikata started writing, and if this production (as it seems from Baird’s account) began simultaneously with his choreographic work. Appendices listing a full chronology of Hijikata’s productions and publications would have been a useful addition.
When Baird attempts in the epilogue to explain why Hijikata’s later dance works were disappointing to audiences, however, his discussion is largely limited to this sense of disappointment. It would have been helpful to have a fuller sense of Hijikata’s work until his death in 1986, including a renewal of his collaborations with Kazuo Ohno (through which Ohno received international acclaim), and a late-in-life project with Min Tanaka that was instrumental in the latter’s development of Body Weather Laboratory. Instead, the artist who has loomed larger than life for most of the book seems to recede from view as the text comes to a close.
Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh is a major contribution to the Anglophone literature on butoh, particular through its extensive referencing and explication of archival materials and texts not available outside of Japan. For scholars of postwar avant-garde Japanese arts, Baird’s work brings dance fully into the conversation, particularly with literature and visual art. For butoh dancers, this book is significant for the way Baird challenges the mystification and mythologizing that has grown up around Hijikata (and was indeed often generated by Hijikata himself). For example, in his discussion of Forbidden Colors, Baird points out the successive distortions of the work that occur in English texts, going on to demonstrate how the work was “sufficiently iconoclastic without the necessity of exaggerating it” (p. 27). Ultimately, this kind of approach presents butoh dancers with a much more nuanced understanding of the founder of their form. Finally, for dance scholars, Baird’s detailed descriptions of Hijikata’s unique methods for generating movement vocabulary and his layered choreographies will be of particular interest.
Even where I question some of the specifics of Baird’s interpretations of Hijikata’s work, he, like his subject, presents his readers with a profusion of evidence while leaving room for other approaches to the work. Baird argues that Hijikata “was faced with a strange conundrum of trying to highlight the socially constructed layers of a society that was beyond his control, and at the same time, supply an alternate density for his dancers that would be open to various interpretations” (p. 156). In a similar way Baird presents his readers with the many socially constructed layers of Hijikata that influenced and were reflected in his productions (e.g., the Tohoku of his childhood, Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese and European surrealists and avant-garde artists), while leaving open the possibility of other interpretations. This openness to interpretation is Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh’s greatest gift.
Texas Woman’s University
“Rewards the curious reader” Review in SFAC (San Francisco Arts Quarterly) by Gianni Simone
SFAQ (San Francisco Arts Quarterly) no. 14 (Fall 2013), 72-77.
HIJIKATA TATSUMI AND BUTOH: DANCING IN A POOL OF GRAY GRITS
By Bruce Baird
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 293 pp., $95.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Gianni Simone
The first time I encountered butoh was at a Carlotta Ikeda’s solo performance in my hometown. I only remember a few details － the empty stage, and this tiny white-painted woman with an old-fashioned hat perched on her head. She spent most of the time struggling through the stage, an umbrella in her hand, as if she was about to stumble at every step. Most of all, I remember my confusion in experiencing something that was so distant from the kind of dance, and performance in general, I was used to. It was so utterly different that I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe, I later realize, I didn’t have to think; it was enough to feel.
Even now, more than 50 years after “Forbidden Colors” － the first officially recognized butoh piece － premiered at a dance festival in Tokyo, butoh continues to mystify and confound, eluding people’s expectations. This book tries to make sense of this alien entity that, in the words of author Bruce Baird, “is always an unfinished project” which resists interpretation. By chronicling the life and painstakingly analyzing the work of one of its protagonists, Tatsumi Hijikata, Baird highlights the contradictions that make butoh beautiful and grotesque, poetic and nightmarish, erotic and austere － all at the same time － mesmerizing the audience while escaping the usual cliche´s that make mainstream performance art attractive and easily digestible. One of the book’s best qualities is that Baird firmly puts every new phase in Butoh’s development within the context of the richly creative cultural milieu of postwar Japanese culture. Especially the ebullient and often violent climate of the 1950s and ‘70s seems to be mirrored in an art form which rejected traditional technique for a form of sometime extreme physical and mental training whose goal was the release of that primordial energy that modern society had gradually suppressed. Today even the casual observer is acquainted with butoh’s performers whose white-painted corpse-like bodies struggle through unnatural movements and contortions. In the middle of all this experimentation we find Hijikata, a contradictory figure who never sold himself cheaply and through his Surrealism-influenced poetic seemed to revel in misleading people through exaggeration. The Akita-born artist helped shape and codify this “theater of pain” that he saw as an answer to social violence and inequalities. Baird helps the reader go beyond the confusion and shock effect through minutely detailed descriptions of Hijikata’s works. Based on his Ph.D. thesis, the book is a veritable treasure trove of information and reflects the many years it took to complete the project. Indeed, this is first and foremost an academic study, and casual readers could be overwhelmed by all the details and Baird’s preoccupation with approaching each idea from different viewpoints. This said, it is also a book which rewards the curious reader who wants to learn about postwar Japan from a different perspective.
“The single most rigorous treatment of Hijikata’s work to date” Review in Monumenta Nipponica by William Marotti
Marotti, William. “Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Gritsby Bruce Baird (Review)”Monumenta Nipponica, 69: 2 (2014), 306-309.
Butoh is a dance form contentiously claimed, and disowned, by practitioners all over the world. Dancers struggle against the dual, constitutive contradictions of the genre: it is, on the one hand, an experimental yet formalized genre, and, on the other, a form that is practiced internationally but associated nonetheless with claims of exclusive lineages and national patrimony. In the most exoticized, ideological versions of such accounts (and the most debilitating from the point of view of practitioners look-ing to present innovative work), either butoh, or the dancing body itself, is taken as manifesting national cultural essence. But even when such assertions are avoid-ed, butoh presents myriad interpretive difficulties. Nowhere is this more true than within the many works of Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986), in performances that first provided the principal articulation of the genre. And with Hijikata himself function-ing as a mystified origin point for identification, lineage tracing, and authentication for dancers, critics, and audiences alike, the stakes are high for considering both the “founder” and his works.
Rising to this challenge, Bruce Baird’s Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits offers English-language readers the single most rigorous treatment of Hijikata’s work to date, with a meticulous examination of Hijikata’s major works from the late 1950s to the 1970s. Hijikata’s performances and choreographies in the 1960s in particular comprise the major contribution to the creation of butoh as a rec-ognizable genre of avant-garde dance—a genre that has been constituted retrospec-tively by projecting back to its earliest experiments and across a range of disparate works only later unified as butoh. Baird’s work takes on a period that is subject to considerable contention, imprecision, and myth-making, reexamining the available evidence piece by piece to consider the works in context. By analyzing Hijikata’s pro-ductivity within a historical context, Baird’s contribution takes its place alongside a growing number of studies that deepen our understanding of the significance of Japanese cultural production during the 1960s.
Baird’s dual objects of analysis, and their fraught relationship, are specified in the book’s title. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh plays on the title of a key 1968 performance by Hijikata, titled Hijikata to Nihonjin: Nikutai no hanran (translated by Baird as Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body). The performance is best known by its subtitle, which was appended at the suggestion of novelist and translator of French literature Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. Baird takes up this work’s title in his introduc-tion (before a more extensive discussion in chapter 4), arguing for the primacy of its two themes, their fundamental interrelation, and their interpretive consequences. He writes: “the relationship between Hijikata and other Japanese people, and the status of the body and rebellion in Hijikata’s dance and thought. These two themes will serve to historicize Hijikata and to counter both readings that see only the body in butoh, and readings that interpret butoh narrowly as an expression of Japanese identity or aesthet-ics” (p. 5). Baird argues that any analysis of butoh that omits any of these four irreduc-ible elements—Hijikata Tatsumi, Japanese people, rebellion, and the human body—“is incomplete” (p. 4). His intention in this book is to explore, through a historical and conceptual analysis, Hijikata and butoh in parallel—in all their contentiousness and complexity, and with the understanding that the two are not equivalent.
By working strictly within the available sources, proceeding chronologically, and re-fraining from evocative obscurantism, Baird presents an analysis that necessarily gets off to a slow start. He begins with a consideration of the ostensible ur-performance, 1959’s Forbidden Colors, the first work by Hijikata as a solo choreographer; there were several performances, including two formal stages and a number of informal but photographed and viewed rehearsals. Baird’s interpretation departs from the many examples of a too-easy foundationalism and exaggeration. Taking up such documentary and written materials as have been preserved, Baird hazards readings that unfold possibilities and contradictions in the fragments, reflecting an appropriate level of restraint on the basis of often-thin evidence.
Baird proceeds among these fragments like an archaeologist, scrutinizing each piece in turn, examining them from all angles for their possible connections and interrelations. His careful attention to detail throughout allows for readings beyond those he provides, giving readers the ability to profit from the evolving scholarship on connected phenomena. His approach yields some strong conclusions, such as in con-sidering Hijikata’s early works against Mishima Yukio’s misplaced primitivism and discerning in them evidence of Hijikata’s consistent goals of “accessing actuality; re-modeling self and society; engaging in persistent revolution; critiquing physical and social forces and evading them” (p. 51). The means for this would be the development of a new set of techniques aimed at “scraping off the customs of the body” (p. 51) in order to realize new possibilities.
Along the way, Baird productively examines Hijikata’s work vis-à-vis that of some of the artists, dancers, writers, translators, critics, and other figures who directly or indirectly contributed to Hijikata’s collaborative and multimedia productions, build-ing a robust picture of the many creative engagements from which these productions emerged. He also identifies the signal role played by the nightclub cabaret shows Hijikata performed in and choreographed, where he tried out new material for a distracted crowd (including GIs on R&R from duty in Vietnam). The exploitative dimensions of this work would expand, particularly as Hijikata added women to his company and as his wife, Motofuji Akiko, retired from dancing to manage his promo-tion, their finances, and the many uses of company members, including nude cabaret work. Baird treads lightly here—too lightly, perhaps—but nonetheless connects the stage achievements of the early 1970s directly to the experimental space provided during the nightly, sexualized dance performances—a space that allowed for constant choreographic innovation and practice.
In later chapters, we find limits to Baird’s reflections that are due not merely to the fragmentary nature of the surviving documentation and related materials, but also to the nature of the dances themselves, and to the fraught task of putting Hijikata’s dances into words: when faced with a full-color, complete film of a performance (Story of Smallpox, 1972; one of four performances in an engagement that lasted twenty-seven nights), Baird finds it “quite impossible to do it justice on the page.” The dance itself inherently presents an interpretive resistance, which is part of what gives this butoh its productive and critical power as “an art form that is saturated with meaning and yet resists finalized interpretation. . . . We can read such a plethora of overlapping elements as an invitation to multiple points of entry” (p. 181).
Notwithstanding these challenges, Baird details a developmental arc across these works, from a more referential and narrational approach (closer to modern dance) evident in earlier dances to the steady development of a complex set of techniques. Baird charts the latter across multiple performances throughout the 1960s, before giv-ing them sustained attention in relation to Hijikata’s works of the early 1970s—first in chapter 5’s attention to Story of Smallpox, and then systematically in chapter 6. Here, too, Baird’s careful approach yields important correctives, particularly in re-gard to the often-encountered, simplified reading of the recognizably Japanese stage elements in these works as a “return to Japan.”
Baird’s unpacking of the methodological changes in evidence in the Story of Small-pox demonstrates why such a simplistic reading is incoherent. Examining the perfor-mances in light of the archival documentation, Baird finds a consistently critical and combinatory, rather than solipsistic and identitarian, approach. The internally frac-tured, “twisted, tensed, oppositional, and unbalanced character of the movements” (p. 148) was doubled in the combinatory nature of the figures onstage. The dancers each presented amalgams, or combinations, of old women, elderly prostitutes, blind musi-cians, yakuza, and even cows while wobbling crouched on half point, or leaping while wearing high geta. Sources for these movements (as detailed in Hijikata’s now archived and partially published Butoh-fu, or scrapbook notebooks) range from historical photos of the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, to sixteenth-century European drawings of beggars, to Mayan and Egyptian artworks.1 Baird cites Kurt Würmli’s argument that Hijikata similarly “took costumes and props seemingly ethnically marked as Japanese from international images” such as Iranian bas-reliefs and Bruegel paintings, images then incorrectly identified by critics as domestic and native (p. 203). And, as Baird further documents, the dancers had been trained in a variety of internally contradictory, fraught mental exercises meant to disperse their at-tention in new ways and disrupt easy routines. In other words, far from the naturalistic staging of domestic sources, the performances were founded upon contradictions and forced mixings, mediatized by diverse comparisons, and realized through an approach to movement and mental preparation designed to interrupt all flow and comfort.
Having framed the evolution of Hijikata’s method, Baird ends his account of the dance performances of the early 1970s with chapter 6. His last chapter then examines Hijikata’s Ailing Terpsichore (Yameru Maihime), a serialized memoir of sorts from the second half of the 1970s, to add further perspective to his analyses of the perfor-mances.2 Baird sees Hijikata’s opaque, allusive writings as “a parallel artistic activ-ity” (p. 187) where his play with language, expression, fictionalized autobiography (including a putative dead sister sold into prostitution), and causality denote a kind of scientized Surrealism typifying his entire creative output. In his writings, Baird ar-gues, Hijikata approaches identity in ways that parallel the work of historian Amino Yoshihiko, by focusing on marginalized and minoritized figures to radically recast received understandings of belonging and nationality—and by putting such figures as “Akita—Genet” into productive relation (p. 204).
Not all readers will agree with Baird’s arguments. He might also have read further into Hijikata’s engagements with Jean Genet as a figure of romantic abjection, for example, and perhaps augmented his analysis with an understanding of the relation-ship between artistic tropes of male-male sexuality and a critical engagement with past and present. And one might wish for greater precision in some of Baird’s contex-tualizations in relation to informational overload and insufficiency in a “hypercom-petitive information-laden age of high-growth economics” (p. 11). These disputes give evidence, nonetheless, for Baird’s own argument about the productive “invitation” to reflection constituted by the complexity of these works—and readers will profit from the wealth of analytical detail and rigor he offers.
1 See Hijikata Tatsumi, Butoh-fu, in vol. 2 of Hijikata Tatsumi zenshū (Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2005).
2 See Hijikata Tatsumi, Yameru Maihime, in vol. 1 of Hijikata Tatsumi zenshū (Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2005).
The “definitive study” “essential reading for some time to come” Review in Performance Paradigm by Peter Eckersall
Peter Eckersall, “Book Review: Bruce Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Grey Grits,” Performance Paradigm 16 (2014) 116-118.
Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Grey Grits, by Bruce Baird (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Japan’s postwar art and performance scene is widely known for its innovations and avant-garde tendencies. Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986) who founded the dance-performance form butoh is among its most influential and inventive adherents. Hijikata was an enigmatic figure, a person who defied aesthetic and political conventions and created a movement style so radical that it too remains in some ways unknowable and butoh is often understood to be uncanny and disturbing. It is viscerally expressive and also challenging of conventions in the performing arts as a statement against modern dance. It is a physicalised protest to the capitalist ordering of bodies in early postwar Japan and a mode of corporeal thinking about existence and the human spirit. It draws on memories of place and culture while also prefiguring ideas of intersubjectivity and ecological systems linking artistic expression to environmental awareness. It is both a comment on and an extension of reality. As Miryam Sas so elegantly writes: ‘Butô appeals to a transcendent return and also, at other moments, acknowledges the impossibility of such a return. In this sense, the performance of butô has the structure of a text, with its impossible invocation of and refusal of the real’ (2011: 202). Interestingly, Butoh (or butô) has been widely disseminated around the world with companies and classes now seen on all continents. It is also popular among many younger artists who are perhaps drawn to its image-based corporeality and transgressive expressions of resistance. While butoh has been the subject of several critical and/or practitioner focused studies in Japanese, English, and other languages, the question of what butoh is, and especially what Hijikata meant to create, remains of great interest. The task of writing about butoh poses the challenge of writing about something that intrinsically resists theorisation. Hijikata’s work can be compared to that of Antonin Artaud whose insistence on a theatre of transformation and one that exceeds conventional forms of representation is like Hijikata’s own artistic outlook.
As Bruce Baird writes in his definitive study of Hijikata’s oeuvre: ‘The world always exceeds language’ (5). Baird’s absorbing, deeply historicised and original study, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Grey Grits pits butoh against 1960s social conformity and alienation. The image of grey grits comes from a story by Argentinean Julio Cortázar who wrote of skin coarsely rubbing against small stones. Baird suggests that the key to understanding Hijikata’s practice is a similar sensibility of friction and violence on the body. He argues for the need to acknowledge how oppositional forces and juxtapositions are characteristic of butoh; inflowing sensory and informational data, and a world of competition and conflict permeate butoh’s bodily assault. Baird takes the Cortázar story that is cited in an essay on globalization by Arjun Appadurai to make a point about the similarity between capitalist regimentation of bodies in response to globalization and Hijikata’s ‘“obsession with small differences” that alter a performance’ (8). Hijikata’s work was about the possibility of dance to go beyond its physical expressive limitations, so as to present physicality as an actuality and state of crisis. Baird shows how this was developed in his extensive engagement with the performance documentation and archive of Hijikata’s work, much of which is now located at the Hijikata Tatsumi Archive, at Keio University in Tokyo. Baird’s reconstruction and contextualisation of key performances by Hijikata form a major part of this book and his work on this will be of lasting significance.
The book is largely chronological. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh includes chapters tracing the development of butoh through Hijikata’s arrival in Tokyo and early experiments in erotic dance and avant-garde ‘crisis dance’ in the late 1950s, and into a maturing of his ideas seen in the works he made in the 1960s and 1970s.
The chapter-length introduction explores the thematic context of butoh including discussion about the tumultuous conditions of 1960s Japan. Chapter two includes a detailed description of the two versions of the notorious work Forbidden Colours (Kinjiki) that Hijikata made with Ohno Kazuo and Ohno’s son, Yoshito, in 1959. The chapter also includes discussion of the circle of critics and supporters who contributed to and debated Hijikata’s work, including the well-known novelist and playwright Mishima Yukio, the butoh critic Gôda Nario, and the intellectual and translator Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. Chapter three follows the development of the Hijikata Tatsumi Dance Experience, a corps of young dancers under Hijikata’s direction who performed in a number of key works including Massur: A Story of Theatre that Sustains Passion (Anma: Aiyoku o Sasaeru Gekijô no Hanashi, 1963) and Rose Colour Dance: To Mr Shibusawa’s House (Barairo dansu: A la Maison de M. Civeçawa, 1965). Using documentation, including Iimura Takahiko’s ‘cine dance’ films of the two performances, and analysis of writings, reviews, poster art, and interviews, Baird gives a comprehensive picture of the development and reception of these key works in Hijikata’s early oeuvre. Baird states that the idea of athletic competition is useful in understanding the often prosaic nature of these works, which included movements based on sport such as baseball throws and running. He notes at the conclusion of the chapter that: ‘Hijikata turned to the question of how to use competition, both between artists and between artists and the audience, as an organizing principle and as a way to strengthen his dance’ (104). In chapter four, Baird takes his analysis of butoh to the level of the Japanese nation-state in an extended discussion of Hijikata’s most complex work Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body (Hijikata Tatsumi to Nihonjin: Nikutai no Hanran, 1968). This piece is a central contribution to the butoh pantheon and a work of considerable dramaturgical complexity as shown in Baird’s analysis. Hence, according to Baird, it ‘can be read as a rebellion against the wider citizen-as-consumer/producer molding-activities of the state and industrial-entertainment complex’ (105). Hosoe Eikô’s famed Kaimaitachi photographs of Hijikata in the Tôhoku countryside are also discussed.
This chapter is a turning point for the book. After Rebellion of the Body Hijikata’s practice gradually changed to focus on intensive and reclusive workshopping and the development of his choreographic method in its mature form. Baird’s writing shifts from the focus on historical reconstructions of performances to interpreting the language and dramaturgy of butoh. Chapters five and six consider his last public performances and works that he choreographed for Ashikawa Yôko and other members of his group. The final chapter explores the performative writing and manifesto-like texts that Hijikata wrote—texts that changed considerably over time and are often difficult to understand. The book concludes with a short epilogue that takes the form of a summary and also an open-ended mediation on the unfinished and tenuous project of butoh. Baird concludes: ‘Properly speaking, in so far as butoh has any essence at all, butoh is an art form that demands that artists put themselves into continually new relationships and allow themselves to be invaded by others as a way to tirelessly search for actuality’ (218).
Baird’s reconstruction of Hijikata’s performances is meticulous in this book. His work is supported by his own translations and discussion of writings by Hijikata as well as rare photographs. The significant contribution that Baird makes is to give an account of the historical development of Hijikata’s butoh through showing where, when and what took place. At the same time, some of the analysis in the second part of the book is slightly limited by a smaller use of aesthetic discourses in the field. For this reason, I find benefit in reading this book alongside recent work by Sas (2011) and Jonathan Marshall (2013). However, this is not to detract from the great achievement of this book and Baird’s definitive historical study will be essential reading for some time to come.
“Plenty of Colorful Stories” Review in the Japan Times by William Andrews
Andrews, William, “ Books/Reviews: ‘Butoh’: the dance of death and disease”Japan TimesMay 28, 2016.
The first dance in Japan may well have been a mythological striptease. In one of the most famous episodes from Japanese folklore, the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto entices Amaterasu Omikami, the sun deity, to come out of hiding by ripping off her clothes and dancing. The elemental irreverence of this moment is still visible today in butoh, a style of dance also known as ankoku butoh (“the dance of utter darkness”).
Primitive yet playful, butoh began with a short, minimal performance in 1959 titled “Kinjiki” (“Forbidden Colors”) after the Yukio Mishima novel of the same name. It featured the choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata playing an older man out to seduce a younger man, Yoshito Ohno, who seemingly smothered a live chicken between his legs. Shrouded in sensationalism for its apparent portrayal of homosexuality and bestiality, it was the birth of a movement that is now stronger than ever.
The newly published paperback edition of Bruce Baird’s “Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits” is perfectly timed to ride the current wave of interest in butoh. In 2015, a Performance Studies international (PSi) conference in Aomori, featuring scholars from around the world, explored the relationship between northeast Japan and butoh. Also, the first theater exclusively devoted to butoh opens this summer in Kyoto. And in May, the Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea, held a retrospective program on Hijikata to coincide with the 30th anniversary of his death.
But what is butoh? This is a contentious question, not least because the dance movement has always been fluid. In the late 19th century, the word was used in Japan to describe Western dance styles such as the waltz. What we now regard as butoh did not initially use the label. Co-founded by Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, the genre’s iconic tropes — near-naked men in white makeup performing slow, intensely controlled micro-movements — only really took hold from the 1970s. Today, butoh encompasses a range of styles, from the grotesque to the austere, and from the erotic to the comic. It is frequently regarded as surreal and androgynous, and focuses on primal expressions of the human condition rather than physical beauty.
“The world’s dance started from standing, but mine started from not being able to stand,” Hijikata once said. His butoh showcased the leper, the diseased body; the “encounter with something in the body that has gone astray,” he said.
Emerging during a time of social change, urbanization and political disenchantment — the Anpo (Japan-U.S. security treaty) protests of 1959-1960 were just beginning — butoh attempted to recover the base body; one that, in Hijikata’s words, “has not been robbed” of its primal character.
When Baird’s book was first published in 2012 it joined the steady stream of English-language writing about butoh that had appeared since the late 1980s. Though the book, like most others published about butoh, has academic trappings, which may put some general readers off, it is nonetheless, as the author says, an “information-rich book.”
The introduction dwells on the title of one of Hijikata’s dances with reasoning that arguably descends into semantics, scholarly names such as that of philosopher Michel Foucault and anthropologist Arjun Appadurai come up, and each chapter opens with an obscure epigraph. Nonetheless, Baird provides detailed descriptions of all of Hijikata’s dances, including quotations from primary sources and records, and with photographs throughout. The book is critical rather than biographical, but has plenty of colorful stories, including some interesting observations on Hijikata’s relationship with Mishima. Another highlight was learning that Hijikata made ends meet by selling sweets at a temple and dancing in nightclubs in Yokohama.
Baird’s thesis revolves around the idea that butoh was a product of its time. He places it and Hijikata in the context of the wider arts and theater movement of the heady ’60s, an era that marked the beginning of a gradual “narrowing of options” in Japan, which “trapped” the Japanese in social roles for two decades. Hijikata’s dance was a rebellion against the state and the industrial-entertainment complex that developed alongside Japan’s high-growth economy.
By dint of tracing Hijikata’s career, Baird also provides a view of the milieu of postwar Tokyo’s avant-garde. In addition to Mishima, the dramatis personae include the artists Genpei Akasegawa, Tadanori Yokoo and Ushio Shinohara, the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the translator Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, and many others. Hijikata’s collaborators and acquaintances read like a who’s who of the scene. But Baird isn’t just namechecking here, he identifies the way Hijikata and other practitioners shared ideas — “invading each other’s work,” as Baird puts it — during this period of experimentation.
And it is timely to return now to the origins of butoh. In the post-Fukushima age, a time when technology seems to have betrayed us, we are witnessing a similar tendency in theater and art to search for primordial sources of inspiration, such as mythology.
The events of 3/11 saw the pillars of Japanese society come crashing down. But the void exposed by the nation’s failed political, corporate and media structures can arguably be filled by art and dance, the kind that Hijikata wanted to make: “gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead re-enact once more their deaths in their entirety.”
“A stunning thorough and provocative gem” Review in the Journal of Asian Studies by Michelle Dent
Michelle Dent (2016). “Book Review: Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits. By Bruce Baird.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 75, no. 1 (February 2016): 246-247 doi:10.1017/S0021911815001874
Bruce Baird opens his impressive Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits with the declaration that “Butoh defies description” (p. 1). Butoh requires artists and performers to commit to unusually strict ordeals of physical and mental train-ing, a discipline that also combines the ingenuity and experimentation of a scientist with the wild and risky combinations of Japanese surrealism. It requires daunting levels of at-tentiveness and transgression. The “dance of darkness” makes equally intense demands of audience members, pulling them into the sort of collaboration that requires a willingness to let go of comfortable notions of self and other, the sort of ritual encounter that art critic and philosopher John Berger would approvingly claim “risks madness.”1 Of course, Sade and Bataille are also high-fiving in the shadows.
Throughout the first three chapters, Baird actively engages readers with the predic-ament of “making the audience work” (p. 21), and as we plunge into the details and deep history of Hijikata and butoh from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, Baird does not spare readers what at times feels like an information overload. This, of course, is part of his impressive argument, as he claims butoh was a response to a newly proliferating in-formation society. Readers are submerged in translated primary sources, rare photos, and taboo content involving sexuality, physical and emotional pain and suffering, murky envi-ronmental ambiance, and animal cruelty (e.g., Forbidden Colors and Forbidden Colors 2). These attributes, expressed through Hijikata’s painstaking and excruciating movement templates, unearth a radical formal process. Essentially, Baird documents the creation of a countercultural body/mind de-filtration system designed to widen the participant’s un-derstanding of the “effects of socialization on the body” (p. 162). This, in other words, is a method by which physical pain and mental abjection reveal the relative degrees of freedom (or more generally, its lack) within the individual’s own psyche and within the surrounding culture and its national preoccupation with conformity, efficiency, and productivity.
At the center of his argument, Baird claims that “even as butoh has spread and gained popularity, it has not been well understood within the context of the sixties, seventies, and eighties in Japan” (p. 1). As the Japanese state emerged from World War II, and as it pumped its economy and citizens toward becoming hyper-productive and effi-cient workers and consumers, artists of the postwar surrealism movement pushed back by stepping away—or so it seemed. Because of butoh’s refusal to participate in the postwar production economy, and because of its rejection of the competitive culture of mechani-zation and conformity, butoh’s shocking power reflected postwar surrealism’s refusal to participate. Butoh aimed to expose the raw and unfiltered mix—the grotesque, violent, and sexual—alongside the whimsy, humor, and taboo busting that began with a move-ment improvisatory system that would later evolve into something more akin to a vocab-ulary of distortion. This included layered vignettes exposing forbidden practices—such as rape, sodomy, animal sacrifice—and a long look at characters who would typically be as-sociated with the margins of Japanese and mid-century modernism.
By the second half of the book, readers get a stronger foothold on Baird’s earlier claim that “[w]hat we now know as butoh looks nothing like Hijikata’s first dances. In the early works there was no characteristic white body paint, nor achingly intense and precise choreography” (p. 15). Whereas Western dance critics often view the ghostly qualities of butoh as a response to the violence of the atom bomb and Hiroshima, Baird warns that the “totalizing strength” of this argument undermines Hijikata’s concern with diffuse causality and the way that conventions and customs shape bodies. The “butoh-bomb” thesis “should be approached with caution” (p. 200). Baird’s interven-tion is therefore to reclaim for Hijikata “the kinds of suffering that were all too ordinary.” After combing through Hijikata’s obscure and often absurd stories and memoirs, we ap-proach the kernel of individual and family cruelty, and the ways in which both are often paraded in broad daylight. In essence, “[b]utoh’s suffering is a product of hundreds of thousands of everyday choices by everyday people (such as neighbors turning spousal abuse into a fashion show)” (p. 201). Baird underscores how everyday sadomasochism profited the institutional oppression of Japan “pimping” its marginalized population for economic gains (p. 210). The goal, then, of this “body in rebellion,” is to highlight that butoh “demands that the artists express and experience the pain of others and particularly those who have been hurt by the diffuse customs and conventions of society” (p. 218).
Baird’s book is a stunningly thorough and provocative gem. His deep command of the Japanese culture and language reveals superb new primary research on Hijikata’s dances, drawing from artist essays by Hijikata and his coterie of performers; semiotic analysis of posters, programs, and audience behavior; and rare photos and film clips. Hiji-kata Tatsumi and Butoh will be of interest to those working in theater and dance history, in performance studies, and in ethno-historical and anthropological studies of modern and postmodern Japan.
1 John Berger, “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible,” in Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay, eds. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II (Boston: Thomson, 2008), 108.
“There is not a volume in Japan that so thoroughly presents the works of Hijikata from the first to the last” Review by Shiga Nobuo in TH (Talking Heads)
「詳細な土方論」TH (Talking Heads) 62 (): 69.