Los Angeles Festival : <i> BUTOH</i> : AN OUTCAST FORM IN JAPAN

<i> Jameson is The Times' Tokyo bureau chief. </i>

Natsu Nakajima, head of Tokyo’s Muteki-sha dance troupe, recalls that when butoh first won attention in that city in 1959, “it was considered crazy and beggar-like.” Now, she says, the avant-garde dance form is finally promising to establish roots in Japan. But it had to go overseas to nourish these roots.

“As a result of the high evaluation butoh has received abroad, only this year have Japanese reached the stage of opening the gates to it,” says Nakajima, who will perform, direct and choreograph her own production, “Niwa” (“Garden”), three times at the Japan America Theatre on Friday and Saturday during the Los Angeles Festival.

For Nakajima and most of the 100 or so other performers in Japan, butoh has been a personal commitment, to the point that they have had to finance their own performances out of savings from other jobs. “It wasn’t until I went overseas that I first got paid for performing,” Nakajima says.


There are only three major butoh groups--Sankaijuku, Byakkosha and Dai Rakuda Kan--with about 50 dancers in all. Another 50 soloists and dancers belong to small groups, like Nakajima’s Muteki-sha. But butoh has won such rave notices overseas that more foreigners than Japanese are now studying under its Japanese masters, Nakajima says.

One troupe has 30 foreign students, compared with only five Japanese. Nakajima’s own “troupe” consists of only herself and one other regular dancer. But five European stage actresses are studying with her.

Nakajima, 44, is the first female disciple of the late Tatsumi Hijikata, the new dance form’s founder, and Kazuo Ono, a collaborator of Hijikata.

Nakajima started dancing lessons as a child, partly because children, even in the poverty of the postwar days, customarily took some kind of out-of-school cultural lessons, and partly because of “the influence of my mother,” she recalls.

“My mother liked Japanese traditional dance. She was trained in playing the samisen (a stringed instrument that is plucked) from age 3,” Nakajima says. “If she hadn’t married my father, she might have been a professional samisen player.”

Nakajima’s father, a civil servant who worked for the National Forestry Agency, was born on Sakhalin. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took over the territory and the family was evacuated to the northeast region of Japan, where her grandfather had been born. She was 2 at the time and does not remember the muteki (foghorn)of the boat that brought her to Japan, she says.

She uses a foghorn in “Niwa,” however, as a symbol of that experience. It was in poetic reference to the evacuation that her teacher, Hijikata, named her group Muteki-sha when she established it in 1969, she says.


Nakajima studied American modern dance for three years, “but I just didn’t get a feeling for it. It was very physical, geometrical, almost gymnastic. But the kind of dancing I was looking for was something of the heart. It was then, when I was in high school, that I saw Tatsumi Hijikata’s debut.”

That was 1959, when Hijikata, with the late Yukio Mishima, the novelist-playwright, staged Mishima’s novel, “Forbidden Colors,” as a new form of art-- ankoku butoh . Although the word butoh simply means dance , the art form came to be known by only that word. (Traditional Japanese dance, by contrast, is called buyo .)

“Forbidden Colors” was a product of what Nakajima called the “first stage of avant-garde” artists in Japan.

“But to seek a deeper development of dance,” Hijikata set himself apart from established avant-garde groups and started his own school of dance. All of Japan’s butoh dancers trace their origins to him, Nakajima notes.

Over the opposition of her parents, Nakajima became his disciple and studied in a school run by his collaborator, Ono. Today, Nakajima ranks as the longest-performing of any of the butoh creator’s followers.

It was after studying classical, Spanish and modern dancing as well as Japanese traditional dancing and finding them all “unsuitable to the body of Japanese people” that Hijikata created butoh, he once said.

For example, critics have written, Japanese bowleggedness, the result of a now largely extinct life style on tatami (straw mats)without chairs fits the squatting that is one hallmark of butoh dancing. Nakajima herself stood and put her legs together to show that, yes, she too is bow-legged, unlike most younger Japanese.

“When I was learning modern dance and attempting to copy Western forms, I practiced extending my legs every day, wondering, ‘What meaning is there in this?’ It doesn’t match the physical characteristics of the Japanese body.

“Japanese have small legs. Trying to extend them by a few centimeters is not beauty.

“Japanese and other Orientals think that height is low, that breadth is narrow, that visible things are those that cannot be seen,” Nakajima says. “Traditional Japanese dance may appear slow, but in it much speed is expressed. Running fast is not the only thing that is speedy. Slow movements of traditional dance contain a great many hours of content. Speed is expressed.

“Westerners think that making many movements represents speed, that dynamic movements represent largeness. Our interpretation of time and space is entirely different. There is much in the techniques of dynamism and quickness we Japanese want to learn from the West. But we have developed our own art of quiet movements filled with nuances.”

Muteki-sha will be the second butoh group to perform at a Los Angeles festival (although others, including Dai Rakuda Kan, have performed in Los Angeles). The butoh group Sankaijuku performed in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

Two years ago, Nakajima staged butoh workshops at the California Institute of the Arts and at UCLA.

Although she has presented “Niwa” nearly two dozen times overseas--in England, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Israel, France, Italy, South Korea, Canada and New York--it has been presented in Japan only twice, in 1982 and 1985.

The work features Nakajima and Yuriko Maezawa, who has been performing with her for 10 years. Nakajima says she created “Niwa” when she was 38 and had resolved to give up butoh because of the financial hardships. Its success, however, persuaded her to continue.

“I intended to make the work a summation of my dance,” she says. “It was a work I did at the most painful period in my life. It was meant as a look at where I had come to in life, where I was going, what I was thinking--a reflection on the future based upon the past and what I would like to be in the future.”

Just as an author might write an autobiography, Nakajima turned what might have been “a private diary” into a butoh work--a “garden of memories,” as she describes it.

The work starts with autumn, the zenith of a woman’s life at age 38, and moves from there to a retrospective and then to a look at the future, she says. Movement, she added, proceeds gradually toward death within the framework of living in a cosmos, to the point of including a ghost.

“It is an expression of my desires, my hopes.”

To Nakajima, butoh has “fulfilled the role of bridging the tradition and the contemporary of Japan. It also linked theater and dance, although originally they were one.”

Nakajima says that butoh has had trouble winning acceptance in Japan because “Japan is a country with a main culture--and no subculture.”

Most tradition in Japan is “isolated from the contemporary,” she says. Unlike South Korea, where traditional culture is taught in universities as part of ordinary education, Japan has “completely isolated its traditional culture and, as a result, overprotected it.”

The Japanese government, for example, generously supports established Japanese dance groups with long histories but offers no funds to butoh, she says. The well-established Japan Dance Assn., which includes traditional Japanese dance, ballet and modern dance, “is a completely closed world” and has nothing to do with butoh, she adds.

With prospects still dim for butoh to reach the acceptance in Japan that it has gained overseas, Nakajima says she has made up her mind to move next year either to the United States, “if I can get a visa,” or to Europe, “where I can have a career.”

“It’s just become too much of a strain throwing away money to perform here.”