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“Why are we in this form? Why do we have to be this particular shape? Why is the face on top of the neck? Our face could be on the soles of our feet. . . . Human beings are quite a strange kind of life form . . .”

Thus muses Akaji Maro, founder in 1972 of Dairakudakan, Japan’s biggest and arguably still most innovative butoh company. The literal meaning of the company’s name is “Great Camel Battleship,” but Maro says that the name was chosen when he was drinking with friends and it was only later that he realized the camel seemed to signify endurance and patience as well as embodying all the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in one. “And,” he laughs, “when camels first appeared in Japan during the Meiji Period, people really didn’t know what to make of them.”

When butoh first appeared in Japan after World War II, people really didn’t know what to make of it either. It originated with Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-86), a native of Akita Prefecture, and — with its near-naked dancers with shaved heads and white body paint, plus its vocabulary of slow, grotesquely twisted movements — it has continued to intrigue and amaze audiences around the world.

Maro studied with Hijikata and is now perhaps best known to audiences beyond Japan for his role as Boss Ozawa in the 2003 movie “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” Maro, a charismatic man with a playful spirit, works as an actor, dancer, choreographer and producer. As we talk in a coffee shop near his studio, he illustrates his points with dramatic gestures involving his cigarette pack and lighter.

“Cruel, ugly, miserable . . . these are adjectives often associated with our performances,” he admits. “But when you take that misery and flip it over it can really shine. You can be moved to the point of tears; it can be beautiful.”

But, Maro stresses, butoh is certainly not something new. “It existed, it was already there. It’s a prehistoric form from thousands of years ago, before language. At that time there was no Japan. Thousands of years ago, in the Stone Age, I think everyone lived the same life in the same way.

“When butoh started, in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a global phenomenon, in painting, music and literature. For some reason a vast historical cycle was in motion at that time. . . . There were musicians breaking pianos and artists leaving garbage in museums and saying it was art.”

Hijikata was trained in the German Neue Tanze tradition but searched for a way of moving better suited to Japanese bodies. Often drawing inspiration from the bodies of farm laborers, condemned criminals or people suffering from disabilities — people who moved as though “against their will.” He struggled to uncover something deeper and more existential in what could be expressed with the body in performance; something through which “there’s no way but to abandon your ego and dance on the stage without self-consciousness.”

Maro describes how he was first drawn to Hijikata as a person, not a dancer.

“He was like someone who should not be permitted to live now. He was very different. I wanted to be — like him — some kind of extraordinary being or extraordinary object. He seemed unadapted to the contemporary world. He reminded us that there are so many restrictions on us; he questioned how we can free ourselves from a lack of freedom that actually originates in our own bodies.”

While the full company performs in large theaters in major cities in Japan and around the world once or twice a year, smaller shows are staged more frequently at their basement studio in Kichijoji, western Tokyo. The studio’s name is Kochuten, meaning “paradise in a jar.” Audiences are squeezed into the tiny space to watch as a series of magical or macabre scenes unfold. The message is never spelt out, so viewers are free to create their own interpretations of the movements and emotions on display.

Dairakudakan’s work plays with boundaries including gender. The latest show performed at Kochuten, titled “Infinite Possibilities,” included scenes in which an older female dancer, the choreographer Eiko Kanesawa, played a young schoolboy while a male dancer took on the role of a “grand dame.” There was also a beautiful passage in which three couples created conjoined human trapezes with their bodies, rocking to and fro in an ecstatic yet innocent discovery of balance.

And, in a climactic, primeval final scene, Eiko Kanesawa is transformed from an androgenous schoolboy into a rage-filled, stamping demoness. In one of those butoh moments when the human body ceases to be “owned” by the dancer, becoming form and symbol, she stands on stage, hanging her head down behind her — an unearthly human mask framed only by a canopy of tangled black hair.

One technique employed by Dairakudakan dancers is miburi teburi, meaning “gesture.” Sometimes the tiniest, apparently inconsequential movement of the hand or foot in butoh can tug at some subconscious memory and unleash a flood of emotion in the viewer.

“Even when standing we are expressing something. There doesn’t need to be a conscious act of dancing, and in fact that can dissipate the feeling. We are trying to dig deeper, to lower the boundaries of dance to capture the underground flow of time,” says Maro.

It’s a “bottom down” approach. Maro describes the company’s method and how through training, the dancers’ “backgrounds” become visible. The further into the past we can feel, he stresses, the more of this “background” we can carry, the further forward we can express and project.

When asked if there is something about butoh that only Japanese can catch, Maro categorically denies it.

“Foreigners who do it for a while get to the point where they feel they can’t go further because there’s something Japanese that they can’t penetrate. That is the point where that person begins to weave their own butoh. So I just say, go back 30,000 years, then there is no such thing as Japanese. . . . There is something in the atmosphere of Germany, of England . . . carry that fully, feel your background. Everyone is carrying something, carrying time on their back. We don’t move through life alone. We carry our ancestors, we carry the dead.”

He adds, “When we perform, we are almost naked and exposed to everything. Everything can affect you. This can be heavy, but accept it, and it can also become a kind of richness.”

Thankfully also, there is a lighter side to Dairakudakan, whose dancers often display quirky humor, bawdiness and high camp, peeking up skirts, cross-dressing and flirting onstage.

Dairakudakan has 27 dancers now, most of whom are young and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Kanesawa was a librarian who, 14 years ago, joined the company’s annual summer workshop in Nagano Prefecture and was hooked. Foreigners are welcome to join workshops and some have even joined the company in the past.

Kumotaro Mukai, the young choreographer who created “Jar Odyssey III” — a sequence of shows (now into its third incarnation) that will be performed at the end of April — was a painter who moved into butoh “because it is a more powerful method for engaging with the world.”

On the company’s Web site, Maro is described as the “backbone” of the “Jar Odyssey III” show, but he feels that, here again, the word “background” is more apt.

Of his relationship with the younger dancers, he says, “I could be their servant . . . yet there are people who think I’m some kind of godlike figure; others see me as a demanding old man, others a demon!”

Young choreographers are encouraged to develop their own shows, choosing the dancers they want to work with, and Maro will view the work and make suggestions at some stage during its development, which involves all the dancers in an intense process of improvisation and experimentation.

Butoh is now an established art form, but the struggle to innovate and break new boundaries continues. “Before, if you went overseas, the audiences would be easily impressed. Now people are more critical and sophisticated. In Paris, someone said that what I’m doing isn’t butoh,” Maro says with a laugh.

“I don’t care if it’s butoh or not. If they find something they appreciate and enjoy, then I’m fine with that.”

Mukai adds, “You really can’t understand butoh unless you see it live and experience it directly.” And he promises that “Jar Odyssey III” will be so interesting and so much fun that audience members won’t notice that their legs, folded under them in the tiny studio, may well have gone to sleep.

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