Butoh appeared first in Japan after the second world war and the student riots there. The roles of authority were being challenged and subverted at this point. It also appeared as a reaction against the contemporary dance scene in Japan, which Hijikata felt was based on imitating the West and Noh and was too superficial.
The first butoh piece was Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), by Tatsumi Hijikata, which premiered at a dance festival in 1959. Based on the novel of the same name by Yukio Mishima, the piece explored the taboo of homosexuality and paedophilia and ended with a live chicken being held between the legs of Yoshito Ohno (Kazuo Ohno's son) and Hijikata chasing Yoshito off the stage in darkness. Primarily as a result of the misconception that the chicken had died due to strangulation, this piece outraged the audience, and resulted in the banning of Hijikata from the festival where Kinjiki premiered and established him as an iconoclast.
In the very first "butoh" performances, the style was called "Dance Experience" (in English), but in the early Sixties, Hijikata used the term "Ankoku-Buyou" (暗黒舞踊 dance of darkness) to describe his dance, and later changed the word "buyo," filled with associations of Japanese classical dance to that of "butoh," a long discarded word for dance that originally meant European ballroom dancing.
In later work, Hijikata continued to subvert conventional notions of dance. Inspired by writers such as Yukio Mishima, Lautréamont, Artaud, Genet and de Sade, he delved into grotesquerie, darkness, and decay. Simultaneously, Hijikata explored the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as animals. He also developed a poetic and surreal choreographic language, butoh-fu (fu means "word" in Japanese), to help the dancer transform into other materials.
The work developed beginning in 1960 by Kazuo Ohno with Tatsumi Hijikata was the beginning of what now is regarded as "Butoh." In Jean Viala's and Nourit Masson-Sekinea's book Shades of Darkness, Kazuo Ohno is regarded as "the soul of Butoh," while Tatsumi Hijikata is seen as "the architect of Butoh." Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno later developed their own styles of teaching separate from each other. Students of each style went on to create many different groups such as Sankai Juku, a Japanese dance group well-known to fans in North America.
Students of these two great artists have been known to show up the differing orientations of their masters. While Hijikata was a fearsome technician of the nervous system influencing input strategies and artists working in groups, Ohno is thought of as a more natural, individual, and nurturing figure who influenced solo artists.
There is much discussion about who should receive the credit for creating Butoh. As artists worked to create new art in all disciplines after World War II, Japan artists and thinkers emerged out of economic and social challenges that produced an energy and renewal of artists, dancers, painters, musicians, writers, and all artists.
A number of people with few formal connections to Hijikata began to call their own idiosyncratic dance "butoh". Among these we can include Iwana Masaki (岩名雅紀), Tanaka Min (田中民), and Teru Goi. Although all manner of systematic thinking about butoh dance can be found, perhaps Iwana Masaki most accurately sums up the variety of butoh styles:
While 'Ankoku Butoh' can be said to have possessed a very precise method and philosophy (perhaps it could be called 'inherited butoh'), I regard present day butoh as a 'tendency' that depends not only on Hijikata's philosophical legacy but also on the development of new and diverse modes of expression. The 'tendency' that I speak of involved extricating the pure life which is dormant in our bodies.
Hijikata is often quoted saying what opposition he had to a codified dance: "Since I believe neither in a dance teaching method nor in controlling movement, I do not teach in this manner" (qtd. in Viala 186). However, in the pursuit and development of his own work, it is only natural that a "Hijikata" style of working, and therefore a "method" emerged. Both Mikami Kayo and Maro Akaji have stated that Hijikata exhorted his disciples to not imitate his own dance when they left to create their own butoh dance groups. If this is the case, then his words make sense: there are as many types of butoh as there are butoh choreographers.
Starting in the early 1980s, Butoh experienced a renaissance as Butoh groups began performing outside Japan for the first time. The most famous of these groups isSankai Juku.
In a performance by Sankai Juku, in which the performers hung upside down from ropes from a tall building in Seattle, Washington, one of the ropes broke, resulting in the death of the performer. The footage was played on national news, whereby Butoh became more widely known in America through the tragedy.. A PBS documentary of a Butoh performance in a cave with no audience further broadened knowledge in America.
In the early 1990s, Koichi Tamano performed atop the giant drum of San Francisco Taiko Dojo inside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco Grace Cathedral, in an international religious celebration.
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