Butoh Masters: Natsu Nakajima & Ankoku Butoh

Natsu Nakajima, the oldest female Butoh dancer, who dedicated all her life to Butoh. She was one of the founding members of Butoh movement and its foremost pioneers abroad.  At the age of 19, she entered the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio and only one year later started to work with Tatsumi Hijikata. Training under both great Masters, Nakajima went on to establish her own dance company, Muteki-sha, in 1969, with whom she has been performing and choreographing internationally since the early 1980s. In addition to her performance and choreographic work, Ms. Nakajima has over 40 years of experience as a teacher, and has been one of the forerunners of dance for the disabled in Japan. Her stunning biography you can read here.



With the permission of Ms. Nakajima, we post extracts from her lecture “Feminine Spirituality in Theatre, Opera, and Dance” delivered at Fu Jen University decade conference, Taipei in 1997.

1. The Birth of Ankoku Butoh:  It’s history and cultural background.

Ankoku Butoh came onto the scene in post-war Japan, and developed very rapidly in the 1960’s. The founding members, at the beginnings of the Ankoku Butoh movement, including myself are considered the first generation.  Today, we have the third and even fourth generation.  Hijikata Tatsumi, who passed away 12 years ago (ref. – in 1997), is the originator of Ankoku Butoh; and Ohno Kazuo, who is 92 years old (ref. – in 1997), but still active in international dance and arts festivals, was his great, extra-ordinary collaborator.  From the beginnings of the movement, for founding members including myself, both Hijikata and Ohno were our teachers.  We were influenced as well as cultivated by them.  Hijikata was a genius choreographer, director, strategist, thinker and a kind of shaman.  Ohno was an extraordinary and rare dancer.  They are both unique and distinctive.  Hijikata was like Picasso; every season, he would change the style of his works like a chameleon.  This partly explains why each of his disciples developed very different working styles.

In the early 1960’s a very small, close circle of members was involved in the Ankoku Butoh movement, with Hijikata and Ohno as teachers at the core of the movement.  We were the beginnings of their lineage of disciples. Hijikata and Ohno, as well as myself and other early members, were trained in modern dance and classical ballet.

Critics in the West talk about Butoh successfully playing the role of two bridges between theatre and dance, and between tradition and modern. To a certain extent, these are fair judgments, though very journalistic in approach.  In Japanese traditional performing arts such as Noh and Kabuki, there was no distinction between theatre and dance. They are performed as ‘total theatre’ and Butoh has this same kind of integration.  In Japan, Butoh is classified as dance but I believe that Hijikata conceived Butoh as total theatre.

It was an interesting time in the 1960’s both in the West and in Japan.   Waves of revolution were rising.  In Japan, the Underground Theatre Movement was developing.  Where previously there were only commercial or mainstream/major performing arts, for the first time the seed of counter-culture found a season good for sprouting. Ankoku Butoh was a movement in the performing arts that was born riding on this wave of counter-culture.

When I look back and ask myself what does this past 30 years (ref. – in 1997) mean, the history of Ankoku Butoh appears as if it is my personal history.  If Ankoku Butoh was just a dance, I believe I would have given up on it long ago.  So what has brought me here?  To talk about this, is to talk about the important ideological background to Ankoku Butoh…  As one of the founding members of Ankoku Butoh, I am obliged to use the ideas of Hijikata as the centre of reference.  Ankoku Butoh came onto the scene with Hijikata as the foundation.  As I mentioned before, he was a genius artist and a strong character, like an ancient shaman.

As I have mentioned earlier, be it in Europe, America, or Japan, “Ankoku Butoh” has somehow developed on its own with the title “Butoh”.  Losing “ankoku” has resulted in losing sight of the original ideology from when Ankoku Butoh was created and has given rise to many misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

 2. What is “Ankoku”?

So what is “ankoku”?  This is a very difficult topic to tackle.  It is like trying to explain and understand the black-hole in the universe.  I am neither a scholar nor a researcher.  I am simply a living dancer.  But I will have to struggle on with this… …I can only try to share with you my deep personal experience of Ankoku Butoh through my clumsy use of language.  In some sense, I feel that we can replace the word “ankoku” with “spirituality”.  When I examine in retrospect, my path over the past thirty years, I feel that I did not take up dance in particular, but rather, I have borrowed the “field of the body” to go on a spiritual journey.  Usually when we talk about spiritual inquiry, we think of the topics of Psychology, Philosophy, Literature, Anthropology, or even Theology.  All of these investigate “spirituality” in a linguistic and sociological domain.  But where is the inquiry into individual spirituality?  If we move along the line of dualism in Occidental culture, we see that in order to look into spirituality, we examine the mind.  Occidental dualism does not allow us to explore spirituality in the field of the body.  For myself, my inquiry into spirituality did not happen in academia, it happened in the field of the body.  This is full of contradictions if we approach it from the point of view of Occidental dualism, but this is precisely the unique feature of Ankoku Butoh.  I am bewitched, not by the spiritual quest in the field of language, but rather, by learning in the field of the body.  But what is this field of the body?  Learning and seeking into that constitutes my Ankoku Butoh journey.

When Japanese people are asked where the position of the mind is, most of them will point not to the brain, but to the heart.  I wonder if mind is equivalent to brain for Occidentals.

There was an interesting incident that happened in Ohno Kazuo’s rehearsal studio.  Many foreigners come to his studio, and he would begin by giving them a phrase to dance on.  For example, “Dance in the heavens.  Dance in hell.  Dance in the heart.”  He would ask them to dance in different “fields”.  Most of the foreigners could cope with this and they would feel that it had been a wonderful rehearsal.  But when Ohno said, dance in the “konpaku”, all of a sudden they would not know how to move.  “Konpaku” is a word that even the Japanese have forgotten and would be startled by.  Where is the field of  “konpaku”?  If there is a field of “konpaku” it would neither be in the “heavens” nor in “hell”.  It is a term that describes the riverbanks where the dead and the living come and go, very much at peace with themselves.  I have the impression that the essential difference, between “konpaku” and western concepts of “soul“ and “spirit” is that these words have connotations of heaven but not hell.    In Japan, we use Buddhist terms like “higan” –the far side of the riverbank, the world of the dead, and “shigan” –the near side of the riverbank, the world of the living.   “Konpaku” belongs to the world of the dead.  The dead come and go several times a year crossing the river to their ancestral homes.  It is not about being called up to the heavens.  “Heaven” and “hell” have a rigid vertical relationship in Occidental society.  “Higan” and “shigan” have a horizontal relationship.  In other words, the heavens and “shigan” are not places but “nowhere out there”.

Whatever you may call it, darkness, spirituality, or even something formless, something that cannot be put into words, or simply, the unconscious, the inexplicable, the destroyed and disappeared… we are actually talking about something that cannot be seen.  Something that Hijikata called “ankoku”.  Hijikata liked to use the word “yami” (shadowy darkness).  It gives the feeling of something that is full of contradiction and irrationality, somewhere like the “chaos of eternal beginning”.

When Butoh is talked about as a kind of shamanism or a form of therapy, it’s like dissecting ones own body into pieces.  To deconstruct Ankoku Butoh with “language” is moving further and further away from the joy of early Ankoku Butoh’s integral quest for “the body as the scene of fulfilled life”.

In some sense, Hijikata hated the word “spirituality”.  He preferred to talk about “yami”, (shadowy darkness).   When seen from the point of view of Occidental dualism, spirituality appears to be superior to the flesh.  Ankoku Butoh is fundamentally in conflict with this because it is based on the eastern belief of body-mind/body-heart unity.  We hold the belief of the total body, and the view of “body as the scene of a full life”.

Like Smoke, Like Ash… Watch the performance of Natsu Nakajima

2016 European tour of Natsu Nakajima

Workshops & lectures
7 – 11 September – Berlin
14 – 18 September – Hague
21 – 25 September – Barcelona
For details, please, see the event page

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