Butoh has found a permanent home in Kyoto. Appropriately, for a form of dance that originated in Japan but has flown under the radar here, that home is a tiny 154-year-old kura, or storehouse, hidden down an alley and squeezed between a medical college and residential buildings slap bang in the middle of the city.

With an audience capacity set at a mere eight people, and only two shows a week that are both on Thursdays, the team behind the Butoh-kan are well aware that butoh will continue to fly under the radar, but fly it will.

Keito Kohara, executive producer of Art Complex, the theater company behind the glitzy production “Gear” — which, since 2012, has been running across town in the old Mainichi Shimbun newspaper offices — has been at the forefront of establishing a base for butoh in Kyoto.

A Kyoto University alum, Kohara was turned on to butoh in the 1980s and has kept one foot in the avant-garde camp, while achieving mainstream success with shows like “Gear.” Consequentially, the success of “Gear” allowed Art Complex to establish the Butoh-kan.

It’s hard to imagine a smaller space — it’s as though you’re performing in your bedroom to an audience — but the theater’s intimacy could prove to be the Butoh-kan’s main draw.

“This venue is very special,” Kohara tells The Japan Times at a press preview on a cool summer night, shortly after the show has finished. “This very narrow space is also special. Here we can share the space and time with the dancer. This is what live performance should be.”

Behind us, celebrated butoh dancer and choreographer Tenko Ima is fielding questions from the audience. Ima is the sole performer in “Hisoku”(“Secret Color”), the venue’s inaugural show.

The show, which runs for just under an hour, looks like a physically exhausting routine — if routine aptly describes the sequences of sporadic and improvised movements Ima performs. At one point the middle-aged dancer flings her body on the floor repeatedly, and each time she crashes to the floor she bounces back up. This happens a fingertip away from the two gentlemen seated in the front row.

She squats, as if she’s imitating a sumo wrestler about to launch into an attack, but instead jumps up and down several times planting both feet noisily on the ground. At different intervals in the show she lets out a bloodcurdling howl, its eeriness reinforced by her ghostly white face and body. The whole thing recalls the image of the banshee, a spirit in Irish legend whose piercing cry warns of death in the house. Thankfully, the show ends with the same number of people alive as it started with.

Nearly everyone at the performance makes eye contact with Ima, which can be intimidating. She uses every muscle and sinew in her body, and especially those in her face. In fact, she looks like an updated version of one of the kabuki artists immortalized by printmaker Sharaku Toshusai in the 1790s: Her face contorts, her mouth grimaces and her eyes flicker; at one stage I thought she might have rotated her eyeballs a full 360 degrees. It’s a performance that is as raw as it is intimate.

Caitlin Coker, a butoh dancer and doctorate student studying butoh at Kyoto University says the face is instrumental in the art form.

“When she (Ima) teaches her students she doesn’t teach them how to make a face,” Coker says. “Instead she wants them to try to become, for example, a horse, and from that feeling in their gut the face is supposed to naturally come out.”

Fittingly, “Hisoku” is an ode to the storehouse that houses the Butoh-kan, which has survived intact through numerous fires and calamities as if, says Ima, protected by the divinity of water.

“I am trying to create and refine a performance, where, with the audience and the musicians, the great experiences of life can be expressed alongside the sensations of the mind and body,” she says.

“Hisoku” derives from a special color, or sheen, found on porcelain after it emerges from the intense heat of the kiln.

“For me, hisoku is bound up with aqueous images: wellsprings, waterfalls, tears. In Japan, colors are not just designators of hue, but are profoundly bound up in delicate sentiments, premonitions, intonations and affections,” Ima says.

Kohara, who has known Ima for a long time, cast her as soon as he secured the storehouse from its proprietor, the Jikei Group of Colleges.

“Because of her energy I thought that she would be very suitable for this space,” he says. Kohara adds that he purposely cast a woman for the production because male butoh performers tend to be over-represented in the upper echelons of the art. “Hisoku” is an all-female show in terms of the actress and musical accompaniment.

Coker mentions that some of the best butoh dancers have been women, but the spotlight hasn’t traditionally fallen on them. Male dancers have often been better at asserting themselves, she says.

Ima is well-traveled and this fact is reflected in the show. Midway through the performance, shamisen players Mayumi Hayashi and Arisa Miyazato, who are up in the rafters, unseen, stop playing. A recording of a fast-paced Turkish military tune brings a new energy to the show before turning into a Portugese fado (a musical lament) that provokes a different response from Ima.

Not unlike a Japanese wedding, the star goes through three costume changes during the performance. One undress takes place in front of the audience as Ima slowly sheds her robe, performing naked except for her underwear. Elements like this reinforce butoh’s avant-garde reputation. But, as Ima says, “I dance with my heart and soul.”

Kohara says the motivation to establish a permanent base for butoh in Kyoto is doubled-headed: as an environment to nourish new talent and as a space to pass the art form to a new generation. The generational aspect is critical as many of butoh’s founding fathers — mostly men — have died in the past few decades.

The Butoh-kan has received no public funding, but Kohara is undeterred. He acknowledges that butoh has limited appeal, and that when it is known, generally it is perceived as a “bizarre and minor underground form.” But he maintains that there is deep-rooted demand for it, one that is often more pronounced outside Japan. If that’s the case, he could be in luck with the country’s pre-Olympic tourist boom.

“We just hope to make Kyoto a place where visitors can see butoh on its native soil,” Kohara says.

Butoh-kan is located just north of the intersection at Koromonotana St. and Sanjo St. in Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. “Hisoku” runs through Oct. 3. Admission costs ¥3,000 (¥2,500 for students). For more information, visit www.butohkan.jp.

Butoh: A dance of utter darkness

The word “butoh” literally means “dance” in Japanese and has its roots in 1920s Germany where Japanese artists were studying German expressionist dance according to M. Cody Poulton, a professor at the University of Victoria.

“But its real beginnings are in the late 1950s, with Tatsumi Hijikata, who coined the term ankoku buto (dance of utter darkness) to express his style, which he developed with Kazuo Ohno and Ohno’s son, Yoshito,” Poulton tells The Japan Times via email.

Early performances were often manic, raw and shocking. To this day it remains difficult to define what butoh is, and there are as many schools as there are styles.

“In butoh the dancer attempts to tap into some personal or transpersonal memory that is trapped as it were in the body and can only be released by the body,” Poulton says.

“There’s a lot of pseudo-butoh out there that’s dreadful to watch, but the really good dancers are amazing and have physical control over every single muscle in their body and know how precisely to use them for the desired effect, which may be in turns beautiful, ugly, grotesque, hilarious or terrifying.” (J.J. O’Donoghue)

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.