The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unending challenge of butoh artist Ushio Amagatsu, a leader in the international dance scene for over 30 years
UNETSU – The Egg stands out of Curiosity
Premiere: 1986 at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris
©Masafumi SAKAMOTO
©Minako ISHIDA
HIBIKI – Resonance from Far Away
Premiere: Dec 1998 at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris
©Masafumi SAKAMOTO
That belief of yours and the performances of Sankai Juku quickly spread the Japanese word Butoh throughout the world. Nonetheless, there were critics in Japan for a while who were saying that “Sankai Juku [work] is not butoh.”
Yes, I was often told that by critics around the middle of the 1980s. But I never once called my dance anything other than butoh. The reason for that is because the initial impression, or inspiration, that prompted me to create works came from the influence my butoh predecessors. And I believed that fact justified my calling it butoh. That said, however, I never tried to imitate the conventions or the specific forms of the butoh of Hijikata or Ono.
  It is especially significant, I believe, that when I first went to Europe in 1980, there was a period of one full year when, of necessity, I had no news whatsoever about what was going on in Japan. And I feel now that that period was an important opportunity for me to think about what butoh was to me. When I was interviewed in Europe at that time, I was often asked not about butoh in general but about what butoh meant to me personally. That caused me to realize that the reason I could only speak in vague terms about butoh, and not in a way that was convincing to the interviewers, was because I had not really defined within myself what butoh meant to me. So, just as the founders of butoh had created their own completely new “receptacle” for creativity called butoh, I decided that I had to think carefully and define my own form of butoh, my own conception of what butoh should be, that involved a methodology which was free of any simple use of already existing information, free of simple “quotation” of forms that already existed. This was in fact something very close to defining a methodology for the creative process itself.

And what is the personal conception of “what Butoh is” that you arrived at?
This may actually closer to a definition of what creation is rather than what Butoh is, but after leaving Japan and looking at things anew, I became extremely conscious of the importance of what I call “difference and universality” in culture.
  As we toured the world performing, every city we went to was different in terms of language, food, daily life customs and all. We were drenched in a shower of differences almost every day. And, in the process I realized that culture exists exactly because of these differences. At the same time, on the other extreme there grew in me a heightened consciousness that there is a human “universality” that exists in all people, regardless of nationality or culture.
  This universality might also be called the “original form of emotions” or “primitive impulse.” It is the patterns on ancient pots, it is ancient murals, it is what Taro Okamoto called the “archeologics” of culture and there is a common denominator to be found there no matter whether it is in Europe or South America or Asia. You will find it in the similarities of the myths about resurrection from the underworld that exist in so many regions of the world, in the general likeness between the Greek myth of Orph?e and Eurydice and the Japanese tale of Izanagi and Izanami. It seems that when people confront the natural world, they get the same types of creative impulses—those are the types of thoughts that took shape in my mind.
  Looking back now, I feel that those personal experiences of universality are the backbone that has enabled me to create and present my works to the world, or perhaps you could say they gave me the courage to work as I have.

So, with that courage you have gained from the experience of universality, you have continued to create and present new works at the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris over the years. They have included marvelous works like UNETSU - The Egg stands out of Curiosity (1986), in which a single thread of water falls constantly from the sky to the earth, and HIBIKI - Resonance from Far Away (1998), where the entire stage floor is covered with sand and 13 round pools of water. These are works that are outstanding not only for their choreography but also the stage art. I have heard that you said the encounter with the Théâtre de la Ville changed you consciousness of the floor in your works.
Yes, that is true. The Théâtre de la Ville is designed so that the audience looks down on the stage, much like the outdoor theaters of ancient Greece. My encounter with this theater changed my way of thinking about the role of the floor surface. Seeing the stage floor of the Théâtre de la Ville spread out before the eyes, I felt a definite consciousness residing in it. After that, I was never able to ignore the role of the floor again, and it became an artistic material that I used very carefully and consciously in my creative process. For example, if you take the work TOKI - A Moment in the Weave of Time (2005), where I spread a thin layer of sand across the entire floor, it is easy to understand how in many Sankai Juku works the floor surface changes with the passage of time. And by the end of an hour and a half or so of dance, the footprints left by the dancers in various strengths cause a kind of large picture to take shape. At this point in my career, I have come to think of this large stage-floor picture created by the footprints one essential part of my butoh works.

Taking that into consideration, can I ask you again how you would express what Butoh is to you?
Whenever I am asked that question, I answer that my butoh is a “dialogue with gravity.” This is a dialogue that people of any country should be able to understand, with very little difference in how they experience it. That is because, in addition to the universality of emotions that I mentioned earlier, there is also a “universality of the body” that all humans share.
  For example we speak about the repetition of ontogeny and phylogeny, and when an individual is born, no matter what country they may be born in, we all born as inheritors of DNA that has been through the same stages of the human race’s evolution. Fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into mammals, and as humans we began to walk the earth. We are all born with bodies into this same path of phylogeny. And the life that is nurtured in the amniotic fluid of the mother’s womb and born into the world, then goes through the same process of taking about a year to gradually learn to stand. Whether it is a Caucasian or a Mongoloid, all humans go through the same process. In other words all humans have a certain physical universality in common and everyone begins the dialogue with gravity from birth and learn through it to stand and walk. And I believe this dialogue with gravity to be an essential element of butoh.

It may be that all people learn to stand thought their initial dialogue with gravity, but not everyone can dance as a butoh dancer. How do you train a “body in dialogue with gravity” that is worthy of being seen on stage?
A body that is completely relaxed is a body that is lying down, right? I begin first of all with this easiest of states and then take the body through the process of sitting up and then standing as the fundamental form of body in dialogue with gravity. While doing this, attention I focused on applying the absolute “minimum strength necessary.” When in an unconscious state, the body naturally resorts to patterns of movement it already knows. Lesser instincts go to work and unnecessary tensions naturally come into the body. My job is to carefully and consciously have the dancer identify and remove these tensions one by one in order to create a body that can conduct the dialogue with gravity in the most straightforward and unaffected way.
  For example, our arms are attached in a way that they hang from the torso, so if we perform the action of lying down the arms should normally just collapse along with the torso as it lies down. But in actuality, unnecessary forces come into play and the arms make preemptory movements. I call this a condition where the dialogue with gravity is broken. When this happens, I carefully note for them where the unnecessary tension has come into play.
  The image of a body in which the dialogue with gravity is going well is one that, when standing up, has the center axis of the body is pointing straight toward the center of the earth. In other words, the force of gravity is distributed evenly on the bottoms of the two feet and the body is standing very easily. This is the ideal primary form. Then, from this straight-standing basic posture, the hips should ideally be lowered and the act of walking begun easily on the heels. If the position of the hips, or pelvis is too high, there is unnecessary tension at play, like in a ballet suat?. In our case, unlike in Western dance, we lower the hips instead of raising them to achieve a basic posture for the body.
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