The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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Artist Interview
Maro Akaji's representative butoh work Kaiin no Uma performance in South KoreaHe talks about butoh today
Kaiin no Uma
Kaiin no Uma
It seems to me that not only Hijikata and Ohno but also Amagatsu and yourself are all very skillful in your use of words. And in fact you all use a lot of words to create images when you are working on the choreography of a butoh work. I would like to ask you about this aspect.
Basically the words we means to an end like a Zen koan that is intended to take the student beyond the level of words. The body is like a mold that is incapable of motion by itself. But you can move the body by making it respond to words, even though the words are merely a means to that end, and even if they are untrue words. In my case, I will use any words as long as they get the body to move. But that doesn’t mean that the final movement is an embodiment of the words. The meaning lies somewhere else.
The body drinks in the words and they completely dissolve there, leaving only the state of the body, with its movements, and that state, or whatever you wish to call it, is all that exists. Even if you are just standing empty-minded, that is enough.

Is this kind of word use being passed on to the young generation of dancers?
No. They aren’t that smart yet (laughs). The words don’t become a means to an end because they take them literally. When I say things like “softly,” “hard” or “that repetition” they ask me “Do you mean like this?” or “Do you mean floppily?” or “Am I wrong?” or “Are you explaining it to me?” or “Is it not an explanation?” So, sometimes the words end up sending the body off in the wrong direction.

So, the words that you and the other butoh artists use are not instructions, are they.
They are means to an end, but many of the young people still trust in words.... Say “Go!” and they actually get up and leave!

Maybe it’s because they don’t read novels (laughs). Anyway, when we put together the things we have been talking about, it seems to be a fact that there is something unchanging and universal about the body but there can be considerable gaps in the way people understand words. Considering this, do you have any particular ideas about the younger generation?
Well, not really (laughs). As long as things are interesting in the context of dance, then it is OK. If they can get to that point without my assistance and acquire the skills to make it on their own, that is good enough for me.
In our work there is something we call the body’s Okippuri (the quality of its stand). It describes the meaning in just standing on a wood floor without doing anything. Since you are not doing anything but standing it is like having something you might call a “taidama”—a variation on the word kotodama (the spirit or magical power in words) where the character for body is substituted for the character for word—is emitting a magical power and even though you are standing still the wavelength of the aura change. In other words, it is a kind of “diversity of the body” that makes the viewer sense a number of directional possibilities. And the first impression people will have is, “What is going on?” or “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

So, how do you bring people (dancers) from the Noguchi Gymnastics stage to the point where they are making audiences say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before”?
The Noguchi Gymnastics Method is a sort of concept of the physical body, and the first time I experienced it, I must say it was a shock for me. It was an encounter with a completely new vector running in the opposite direction from my concepts about the body until then. It showed me a completely new image of gymnastics as something flexible and formless rather than a set of strict movements and forms, and that the body was also something flexible and formless.
But, simply being flexible and undirected in movement is nothing in itself. You next ask the question arises What if this bag, this receptacle that is the body is something stiff? What if that receptacle is as hard as a rice bowl and the contents are sloshing around inside it? Or, What if it freezes? So, you move the body while posing these questions ....

Earlier you said that words are a means to an end, but does that mean that you can’t dance or you can’t develop the body without imagination expressed words?
That’s right, you can’t. Even for an action like lowering the body’s center of gravity, I give a variety of examples. In disciplines like kendo (Japanese sword training) and judo, you can’t move on the offensive or defend well if the lower body stance is not set properly. I use examples like the stances of these martial arts.
And then I go beyond those images. We are not martial arts practitioners and we are not trying to beat our opponent (laughs). Then comes the example of the way yakuza gangsters fight. If it is a matter of defined movements, you can tell which person is stronger, but if they come out in a sudden wild act of violence, you won’t know. Like, if they come out with some wild dance they might beat you (laughs).
But even these kinds of words are means to an end. But even so, words are things that are disappearing from our bodies all the time. In order to get the same kind of action, you can use different words, right? There is an endless number of examples.

Does that mean that after changing the way the dancer thinks about the body to some degree you then put them through a lesson actually using a variety of verbal expressions?
A judgment has to be made about whether words and images alone are enough. This is beginning to sound like a discussion of the master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi or the Tsukahara Bokuden (laughs). Like, even when the master swordsman is relaxing he is never vulnerable. It is that kind of form. What I often says is, “Having a strong presence is one form of technique.” It is not enough just to be there. Even when the body is limp and seemingly formless, there still has to be meaning. I believe there is a method of technique to get to that point.

In a butoh work there has to be a certain flow of time. How is that decided?
If it is interesting, you keep doing it. But, the question is how you decide what is interesting and what is not, and when you are actually doing this in a work, one scene usually lasts from 10 to 15 minutes.
Today the speed of the audience is often faster than that of the performers, so they catch what is going on right away. But, of course, this is not an interactive game we are playing with the audience, so whether or not we should be thinking about taking measures to deal with this situation is another question.
However, in order to sustain a flow of time, I think that there are efforts to be made. I think in terms of “ma” (an interval of time, or a pause). It doesn’t necessarily mean being completely still, but I think in terms of creating a still image or creating intervals of pause. In musical terms you could say that I am fond of syncopation. I like that kind of shock, that Western type of ma that is the unexpected pause before the next beat. But then there are times when you think the pause is coming but a beat comes instead. There are times when that kind of discontinuous continuity can be the point to sustaining a time flow. In a pianissimo piece there may be sudden strong pings or pongs. Often you can move an audience more by going from near zero to one than by going from 100 to 101.

What are your thoughts about music?
That’s a sensitive question. It may come down to a matter of “It is enough to have good sound” but sounds that are highly emotive tend to resemble specific emotions. That’s why I don’t use traditional Japanese music. In an outdoor performance it is not interesting if you use music, but in a theater if there is no sound at all, even I start to feel uneasy. I don’t think you can reach the realm where “even silence is a sound.”
 
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