On a small raised platform, a lone dancer, naked except for his white pants, slowly twists his convoluted body around metal chains suspended from the ceiling. Twelve other dancers, similarly undressed and bald, watch in silence from all angles of the tiny studio, their own bodies stretching and contracting as if taunt strings connect their limbs to those of the lone performer.
“They’ll be tumbling down from steps that are 4 meters high”, the only man in a T-shirt and trousers explains offhand. “They’re breaking down the movements they will make as they fall.”
In this dark, modest, underground studio in the student district of Kichijoji, in western Tokyo, the internationally celebrated butoh group Dairakudakan rehearses under their leader for this season, Takuya Muramatsu, whose latest work, “DOBU” (meaning “ditch”), runs March 8-11 at Theater TRAM.
Since 2001, Akaji Maro, who founded the troupe in 1972, has asked selected members to produce their own works as part of the “Kochuten (Paradise in a Jar)” series. Muramatsu, 38, who has studied under Maro for 13 years, is one of eight dancers to do so.
Dairakudakan (Great Camel Battleship) is one of Japan’s leading butoh companies. So many groups have emerged from Dairakudakan since it began in 1972 that Maro coined the expression ichinin-ippa (one dancer, one school) to describe the group. Over the decades, its members have led Japanese contemporary dance in search of new forms and new methods of expression.
So, what new form does Muramatsu intend to bring to the group through his latest work? The answer comes quickly and with a wry smile: “I don’t know.”
Butoh was originally intended to be an expression of doubt, Maro once said, and this doubt is now all but the overriding concept behind Muramatsu’s production. On the other hand, the concept of tempu-tenshiki (being born into the world is a great talent in itself), pioneered by master Maro, seems more estranged than ever.
“In a dobu, or ditch, you throw away things that you don’t need, and the modern young person, without religion, is realizing that they themselves may be waste,” explains Muramatsu.
Butoh was born during the 1950s and ’60s, when “alternative” art forms were blossoming. Characterized by ghoulish, whitewashed bodies, shaven heads and tortured movements, butoh was a reaction against the grace and athleticism of traditional, role-based dance. But it did come under the influence of some “mainstream” dance, such as classical Russian ballet.
“When butoh started out in postwar Japan, to observe Western art and values was the thing to do,” says Muramatsu, as he waves a cigarette around the producer’s office. “Dairakudakan was OK as long as we tracked the Western way, and either followed it or reacted against it. But now, the West has no absolute value either. The tension and the newness are in not doing anything at all.”
Since joining Dairakudakan in 1994, Muramatsu has performed in all of its public outings, and he is the leader of Mujinjuku, the group’s summer intensive program.
“Everyone is aware now that there isn’t necessarily an absolute value. The modern young man’s identity used to be defined by occupation, such as ‘the son of the farmer’ or ‘the heir of the family business.’ But now, he is free to do anything, then he finds that he can’t do anything. He doesn’t know what will succeed, what is worthwhile, what is useless. He asks himself, am I really suited to this? He can’t even be his own god because he’s too scared.”
In “DOBU,” Muramatsu wants to express that “nothingness” — human identity at its most honest. “You look into rubbish bags and you see that family’s lifestyle more clearly than if you look at the people directly. You look at somebody’s feces and you see what they eat, or how well they eat.
“And this is truer as you go further into the city. In the city, you prefer things to be ‘clean.’ The richer you are, the more you dress yourself up with jewelry and makeup. The breath is supposed to stink, but you buy fresheners; hair is supposed to grow, but you shave. Everything is done to try and make the body seem not raw. And on the streets, the ditches can’t even be seen because we cover them and plant trees on top. But these trees, too, are protected from damaging insects and trimmed to look pretty.
“I want to capture what’s there when you open the lid. And in the city, there are more interesting things to discover than in the countryside. There is more that’s hidden, so there is more to reveal.”
So, there is a purposeful vision toward which he is driving? Muramatsu sits back and smiles. “Well, dance itself has no value, no purpose, wouldn’t you say? Not in society anyway. Art isn’t enough; words are inadequate. Dance doesn’t cook you dinner,” he adds with a twinkle in his sharp eye. “It doesn’t even throw out the rubbish.
“The key to my butoh, and to ‘DOBU,’ is how to penetrate through ‘having nothing to tell.’ The very things that have been thrown away take center stage.”
To direct these “discarded beings,” Muramatsu, as choreographer and director, has “to decide what’s good and should be kept in the final product, and what’s bad and should be thrown back in the ditch.” How does he make that decision? “I look for spontaneity,” and, he adds thoughtfully after a long pause, “immediacy.”
For Muramatsu, his dancers’ movements have to be convincing to the eyes, not only physically but physiologically. “There’s nothing there — we’re naked with no props. But here, as I bring the cup of coffee to my mouth (he imitates the movement sans coffee mug) the density of the movement needs to be there.”
But if words are inadequate, how does he direct his dancers? Muramatsu smiles and takes a big sip from the real coffee mug. “I have to express the move- ments using these inadequate words. I have to capture a spontaneous move- ment somebody does in a moment. He may not even be able to reproduce it, but I need to describe it in a way that allows not only that dancer, but all the dancers, to reproduce it time after time.”
In one sense then, in this new age of Dairakudakan butoh, the idea of ichinin-ippa, individuals giving birth to their own unique vocabulary of movement, is more crucial than ever. “Do you know the Japanese word haramu?” He takes a last puff of his cigarette. “It means ‘to become pregnant.’ Each dancer needs to give birth to the movement as if it is spontaneous and immediate. And I have to give directions that will make that happen every time.”
What does he hope the audience will come away with?
“My butoh puts trust in the fact that nothing is black and white. It has no shape, no purpose, and isn’t practical — rather like used tissue paper.” He stands up and peels off his clothes, ready to get back to the studio. “However unpleasant or unnecessary our expressions might be, our audience may appreciate it because we’re conveying feelings honest- ly, without any dressing.” Quite literally so, as Muramatsu strips to white pants and starts bending his body in all direct- ions, expressing pain and anxiety in his contorted face — most convincingly.