In a small studio in Kichijoji, a director is telling three dancers that their heads are potatoes rolling around on a plate. And their three bald pates, poking up through a single piece of cardboard that holds them together, certainly have the appearance of earthy spuds, wobbling uncertainly across the makeshift surface.

So the instruction is a success, but it’s only a small part of the atmosphere that Takuya Muramatsu wants his Butoh-ha Dattan (Tartar Butoh) troupe (an offshoot of the legendary Dairakudakan troupe) to create. After his three dancers — Tomoshi Shioya, Ikko Tamura and Atsushi Mastuda — have perfected that motion, it’s time to tackle the tongues.

For almost 10 minutes or more, the four poke their tongues out at each other, the three dancers listening to the director’s instructions, but, more importantly, watching his mobile and lively face to capture exactly what he’s after.

But what is he after?

“We don’t expect that the audience will make out that their heads are potatoes,” says the 39-year-old director. “But if we want to describe good friends, showing potatoes on a plate to people is more effective than showing the dancers hugging or shaking hands. What is important is not only the metaphor, but that the performance is from the heart.”

The three characters on the stage represent a young, a middle-age and an elderly person — or perhaps the three ages of a single individual — in rapt conversation. In today’s session, which may or may not end up in the final production, “Sonna Tokikoso Warattero (Laugh at Such a Time)” showing next week at the Kichijoji Theater, the youth is enthusiastically saying “Hai! (Yes!),” the middle-age character, “Kana? (I’m not sure about that . . . )” and the oldest, “Dane (It is, isn’t it.).”

“What is important is for each performer to attract the audience’s eyes. It is the same as in a movie,” says Muramatsu. “A movie is not only about a plot or an atmosphere — it’s also a presentation of beautiful images. So, the expressions in a butoh performance, such as the movement of the tongue or some other detail of physical expression like that, is also vitally important.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the mystery of butoh. Those detailed motions can be so strange that it’s possible to forget that it is dance and start to think of it as something more transcendent, as an almost religious practice trying to touch an unconscious part of the human psyche.

Rei Sasaguchi, a 20-plus-year observer of kabuki, 15 years for The Japan Times (see story below), points out that the difficulty in understanding kabuki as an art form — rather than simply enjoying it as a performance — is that it is omnivorous, taking elements from all the other traditional Japanese theatrical forms: noh, kyogen comedic story- telling, bunraku puppet theater, odori Japanese dances and more. In that, kabuki displays one of two virtues Japan often celebrates, adaptability (the other being its opposite, purity).

Butoh is much the same. If you’ve seen a performance before, ask yourself: “What is butoh, what’s not?” It’s a difficult question.

“Well, it’s different depending on whether you are a viewer or a player. It is butoh if a butoh performer or director says it is butoh,” says Muramatsu. “But in the over 60-year history of the dance movement, butoh has yet to be clearly defined. Even if I say this is butoh, some audience members still might say, ‘What Muramatsu is doing is not butoh.’ ”

In other words, it’s open-ended and up for interpretation as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t in the dance movement. Dancers can wear almost any costume — despite typically appearing in only a fundoshi thong, covering themselves in white makeup and sporting shaved heads — and be accompanied by any soundtrack (recent Dairakudakan performances have featured techno-like electronica). So perhaps nothing is unacceptable.

To show how difficult it is to answer the question, Muramatsu asks, “What is rock ‘n’ roll?” — another genre that’s hard to pin down and willing to take in elements of many other musical styles. To the reply that it’s guitar, bass and drums, he rejoins with, “If rock ‘n’ roll is drum and guitar, then butoh is body.”

“Expressions made using only the body resemble myths, as the body is not only a contemporary thing,” he further explains later. “The movements of our body we see today have been formed over a long time. Therefore, in butoh dance, we can use things that seem to come from old times that are wilder or more savage.”

The basic step of butoh is a kabuki-like shuffle in which the feet slide along the ground and the dancer tries not to move their shoulders. And while butoh has striking poses much like kabuki’s mie, physical similarities end there. Performances often give the impression the dancers haven’t fully learned how to use their bodies or that their bodies are out of their control.

“I am attracted by this. For example, a dying insect, one that’s been half crushed, looks more attractive than a healthy one,” says Muramatsu, quickly adding, “I am only talking about the movements — not the suffering of the insect!

“Say if you took a disabled dancer for example, it’s not important if he dances ‘well’ or ‘not well’ — it’s the person’s existence that matters,” he continues, echoing Dairakudakan founder Akaji Maro’s sentiment that “being born into the world is a great talent in itself.”

“It doesn’t matter if he is flexible,” concludes Muramatsu. “If everyone looks at him, that alone is worthwhile.”

Which is a reminder once again that butoh is all about performance. So that is one limit: It’s an art form that takes place on a stage and must entertain — or better yet, entrance — an audience. Other than that, butoh, for now will best be defined by not defining it.

“If you use your hand in soccer game, it’s not soccer any more,” says Muramatsu, “but once the rules of butoh are decided, it will no longer be butoh.”

Father of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, once deformed the silver screen

Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of the butoh dance movement, appeared in only one commercial film, “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Toei, 1969), where he played the mad malformer and his dance troupe, the malformed. The movie, directed by Teruo Ishii, has developed something of a reputation. Long unavailable, it was both called “the greatest unsung classic in the history of cult cinema” and dubbed “transgressive, disturbing, depraved.”

Now, after some 37 years of local neglect, it can be again seen in a single showing on Thursday May 22 at 8 p.m. (admission ¥1,500) at the arts-space Super Deluxe (next door to Roppongi Hills). Author Donald Richie is including a complete version in Japanese with English subtitles in his ongoing Japanese Cinema Eclectics, a multipart series devoted to the unexplored tangents of Japanese film that is sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies of Temple University. Richie will speak briefly about the picture, its legacy, and the extraordinary appearance of Hijikata, a near-legendary person himself. Here is an opportunity to be not only disturbed and depraved, but also to view at length one of the most important founders of modern dance in Japan.

Super Deluxe is at B1 3-1-25 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo. For more information call (03) 5412-0515 or visit www.super-deluxe.com

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