Stage

Deconstructing the avant-garde art of butoh with Taketeru Kudo

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Butoh, the avant-garde dance form incubated in postwar Japan, tends to conjure images of wraithlike performers in white body paint, moving at speeds that would make a glacier impatient. An audience with Taketeru Kudo, however, promises something different.

At a recent performance to celebrate the reopening of the Space Zatsuyu theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, the dancer appeared dressed down and without makeup, accompanied by jazz saxophonist Eiichi Hayashi. While the latter unleashed a torrent of bebop licks and extended techniques, Kudo covered the length of the stage in a sustained burst of energy: dashes, jumps, shudders and flamenco stomps.

His face would contort into a demonic leer, then go blank; his body would convulse in spasms, like John Hurt just before his chest bursts open in “Alien.” At several points, he suddenly dropped flat on his back, then tried to right himself like a marionette having its strings tugged.

“There’s a bit of a Halloween or zombie image,” Kudo says, when we meet at a bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district, mocking the popular perception of butoh. He raises his hands in a Nosferatu pose and makes a low-pitched rasping sound. “The reality is different — it’s not about the make-up.”

Since its inception in 1959, birthed by the dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, butoh has refused to settle in one place. It’s defined by its slipperiness; one of the sole constants of butoh is that people are forever being asked to explain what it is.

“Hijikata’s choreography was extremely precise,” says Kudo. “He’d tell his dancers exactly what to do: the position of their hands, the angle of their necks, their line of sight, the feeling they should have when they perform. Whereas with Kazuo Ohno, he didn’t make forms (of movement): He was all about expressing things in the space between forms.”

Kudo, who describes himself as “both a composer and an improviser,” says his own approach lands somewhere in the middle.

“I like the energy in the space between forms, but I get uneasy if something is too shapeless,” he says.

Though it’s now a well-trafficked stop on the tourist circuit, Golden Gai — a ramshackle warren of tiny bars and eateries — was once the social center of Tokyo’s cultural vanguard.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 12,” Kudo says, going on to note that butoh and booze have a close-knit relationship. “After Hijikata did a performance, he’d spend the next three days getting trashed.”

Twelve, not coincidentally, was also the age when Kudo moved to Tokyo, after spending the early years of his life in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. He recalls childhood visits to his grandfather’s home in the countryside, where he was both frightened and fascinated by the oshira-sama on display: wooden figurines, carved with human and horse faces, that are venerated as part of the folk religion in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan.

The contrast between these formative memories and life in the “desert” of the capital has come to define Kudo’s career.

“I call it, ‘The wilderness of modernity,'” he says, switching briefly to English. “Those two forces — tradition and this wilderness — are fighting it out within me, and I’m squeezed in the narrow space between them. That’s the central theme of my work.”

He isn’t talking about tradition in the artistic sense here. Kudo had a brush with that world while studying French literature at Tokyo’s Keio University in the 1980s, when he spent a few years learning nichibu, classical Japanese dance. Asked if he still has any affinity with the discipline, he winces.

“As a contemporary artist, I don’t like Japanese traditional arts,” he says. “The traditional arts are much too isolated. I’m trying to express what’s happening in the present.”

He’s also critical of the current state of butoh in Japan, where many of the elder statesmen are still active, stymieing opportunities for younger artists and creating an atmosphere in which everyone is “clinging too much to the past.”

“There’s a lot of international interest in butoh now,” Kudo says. “People are visiting from all these different countries to study or take part in workshops, thinking that they’ll understand butoh by coming to Japan. But there’s nothing here! Everyone goes home a little disappointed. Butoh is flourishing more overseas.”

Kudo’s own induction into the world of butoh happened thousands of miles from home. As a cash-strapped student, he borrowed money to head to the United States to study with Koichi Tamano, a Hijikata acolyte based in Berkeley, California.

Kudo had seen Tamano perform in Tokyo and was immediately drawn to his approach, a far cry from the slow-motion style preferred by many of the big-name dancers.

“He would move quickly when he wanted to — really quickly — and it wasn’t all dark,” he recalls. “Maybe it’s because he was creating it in California, but his butoh was extremely colorful. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.”

Tamano’s advice to his student, which could almost be a mantra for butoh itself, was: “Don’t you dare follow my example.”

A song and dance: Taketeru Kudo often performs with Eiichi Hayashi, a saxophonist who the dancer admits to admiring. | JAMES HADFIELD
A song and dance: Taketeru Kudo often performs with Eiichi Hayashi, a saxophonist who the dancer admits to admiring. | JAMES HADFIELD

Kudo started off dancing with Tamano’s Harupin-Ha group in Berkeley, then spent several years with Asbestos Hall, the Tokyo studio established by Hijikata, before going solo in 1992. However, in 1995 he was recruited to become a member of Sankai Juku, the internationally renowned troupe led by Ushio Amagatsu.

“It’s not like I applied, or was angling to join,” Kudo says, by way of clarification, and this evidently wasn’t a happy period in his career. The rigor and tedium of touring precisely choreographed pieces for months on end didn’t appeal to him.

“It’s the only time in my life when I’ve received a salary,” he says, joking about the group’s businesslike way of operating. “That was the good side, but it was mentally draining.”

The upshot was that, when he left after just three years, Kudo returned to his solo activities with renewed vigor.

“It may have left me with a clearer sense of what I wanted to do,” he says. “So I wouldn’t say it was a complete waste of time. You need to have that element of pushing back, or reflecting on something.”

For his latest performance, Kudo will be pushing back against something else: himself. Over five days at Tokyo’s Za-Koenji Public Theatre, he will present a radically different take on “The Candy Explosion,” the solo piece he performed internationally during 2019. Rather than showcase new work, he’s planning to destroy it.

“This piece is about taking all the choreography and composition I devised last year and pulling it apart,” Kudo says. “I try to do that every time — in that when you create new work, you’ll start by taking a critical view of what you did before, and then developing the next piece from there — but this will be the first time I’ve done it so systematically.”

In practice, this means returning to the original inspirations of “The Candy Explosion” — roaming once more in the wilderness of modernity — but breaking free from the choreography. He’ll be aided in this act of deconstruction by a rotating cast of musicians, ranging from jazz veterans Hayashi and Akira Sotoyama to ambient artist Hakobune. The event will also feature Kudo’s first Tokyo engagement with singer-songwriter Keiji Haino, an underground icon who’s like a genre unto himself.

Kudo speaks with particular admiration for Hayashi, a regular sparring partner. The saxophonist’s 1996 solo album, “Oto no Tsubu,” is a favorite.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to wear out a CD, but I’ve gone through three copies of that,” Kudo says. “I’ve never thought I wanted to dance like anyone else, but I want to dance like the sounds Hayashi makes.”

Kudo can also be found every Monday at a studio in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, where he holds workshops for anyone interested in the rudiments of dance.

“The basis of butoh is making your body empty, and from there you can change into anything,” he says. “You could become wood, concrete, metal, a plant, an animal.”

He pauses, and frowns. “Wait, what was I talking about again?”

Taketeru Kudo performs “The Candy Explosion” at Za-Koenji Public Theatre in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, from March 4 to 8. For more information, visit www.kudo-taketeru.com.

Coronavirus banner