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Dare to be Ugly: Dance That Goes Beyond the Beautiful

An obscure Japanese art form pushes back against everything we’re taught to value.

April 7, 2017

How many compliments can you get on a carefully choreographed selfie? How many likes can you score on a trendy social media post? In a time when every scrap of self expression is an opportunity to market your personal brand, the pressure to look perfect can be overwhelming.

But for performers of Butoh, a form of modern Japanese dance, imperfection is art in itself. Nearly naked bodies, contorted limbs, skin painted white to make teeth seem yellow — Butoh performers put the spotlight on the grotesque.

“[It’s] not just beauty we’re looking for,” says Butoh performer Diana-Garcia Snyder, who is performing in the Seattle Butoh Festival from April 7-9. “The darkness — the shadow that we all carry — can be exposed and transformed on stage.”

Butoh emerged in Japan in the 1950s, following the end of World War II. Its founders sought to move away from Western dance forms that emphasized beauty and grace.

Movements that may be considered grotesque and ungraceful in many other genres of dance are part of Butoh. Photo by Bruce Tom.

Most art forms emphasize elegance and poise, leaving little room for the unpleasantries of reality. However, Butoh performers realize that life can also be hideous and horrific.

“I want to believe that performing Butoh opens the window for the audience to explore themselves,” Garcia-Snyder says. “The more chaotic life is, the more useful it is to have Butoh around — to have that face-to-face connection with what is ugly, what is not pleasant.”

Butoh has a long history in Seattle. The city served as the starting point for many of Butoh troupe Sankai Juku’s nationwide tours. In 1985, tragedy struck when dancer Yoshiyuku Takada fell five stories to his death while performing a piece in Pioneer Square.

But the art form is at risk of losing its ties to its roots.

Okumura’s body is painted a ghostly white during her performance. Photo by Bruce Tom.

Rather than providing instructions to his students through movement, founder Tatsumi Hijikata chose to deliver his teachings through a series of notes known as Butoh-fu, or Butoh scores. The notes became a kind of code in which certain movements were assigned names, then strung together to form a performance.

Kaoru Okumura, a performer who studied under Hijikata’s wife, says that many of the original Butoh students are now in their 50s and 60s. If they die without handing down the original movements that Hijikata taught them, the art form will vanish.

“This five years or so will be the last chance that we can learn something from that age,” she says. “It is really challenging to make this alive again. To do that, we have to watch. They are actually performing the Butoh-fu.”

Is there room in today’s fast-paced, beauty-obsessed world for an art form that expresses the opposite of all we are told is valuable? Garcia-Snyder thinks so.

“There are many people ... that come to Butoh because they feel that need to explore themselves,” she says. “And I think that’s not going to change with time. We’re all going to be humans looking for answers to our world.”

Seattle Butoh Festival

What: Dancers hold live butoh performances, $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors/students
Where: Shoreline Community College Theater
When: Friday, April 7 to Sunday, April 9



Aly Chu

Aly Chu is a production intern at KCTS 9 and a freshman at the University of Washington. Currently a contributor at the UW’s newspaper, The Daily, she enjoys visual storytelling and hopes to major in communications. In her free time, she works as an illustrator and creates webcomics.

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