restricted access Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits. by Bruce Baird (review)
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Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits. By Bruce Baird. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012. xv, 293 pages. $100.00.

There is a great deal of tortured writing about butō, but Bruce Baird provides straight talk on butō’s founder, Hijikata Tatsumi, even as he acknowledges Hijikata’s poetics. Baird views Hijikata in his protest of social mores of Japan—as “slashing space,” to use one of Hijikata’s metaphors, one that can be applied liberally to his multivalent dance and precarious relationship to the Japan of his day. Hijikata created a new genre of dance, which developed roughly between the 1950s and 1970s in postwar Japan. Since [End Page 422] then, as Baird notes, butō has become a global phenomenon. A recent book details this advent of butō and also produces a historical background of the many factors and artists at work in the development of butō, including a philosophical trail leading back to Hijikata.1 Baird, however, gives the fullest account of Hijikata himself yet available in English. His resources for telling Hijikata’s story and interpreting his dances and motives are voluminous, including his own residency at the Hijikata Tatsumi archives at Keio University in Tokyo.

Baird sees Hijikata Tatsumi as less of an original than most writers on butō, “a product of his times,” and not the only modern dancer trying to do something new in postwar Japan. By the time Hijikata was entering the scene, several choreographers sought to challenge the existing system. Baird’s assessment of Hijikata’s Kinjiki (Forbidden colors, 1959), the dance that initiated butō, uses many available sources to reconstruct contextually the movement and dramaturgy of the dance. Was this a dance of “evil”? Many people were apparently shocked by the dance and saw bestiality and sodomy represented, at least by the time the dance had been reinvented in several publications and audience versions. These descriptions gained momentum over time, rendering the dance more shocking than it was, Baird believes, and causing us to see Hijikata more out of the mainstream than he really was. This dance would place Hijikata squarely in the contentious era of 1960s and 1970s Japan, the same period that defined postmodern dance in America. Baird reads Hijikata’s butō as “a collective response to the information age and Japan’s era of high-growth economics” (pp. 16–17).

By the 1950s, Japan had imported many Western forms of dance— ballet, ballroom, modern dance, and tango, to name a few. Modern dance had been developing in Japan roughly over the same period as in the West. In their travels abroad, Japanese proponents of early modern dance studied German expressionism and American modern dance. Creatively open and experimental forms of early modern dance developed in the West in the 1920s and 1930s with Mary Wigman in Germany and Ruth St. Denis and others in America. Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, St. Denis combined dramatic mise en scene and unique dance steps, successfully merging theatrical and concert dance. She also included influences from her exotic understanding of Japan, India, Egypt, and China. Thus, there was from the beginning a crosscultural aesthetic ferment in modern dance. Eguchi Takaya studied with Mary Wigman and became a very influential teacher in Japan. Ohno Kazuo, Hijikata’s closest dance associate, studied with Eguchi in 1936. Hijikata studied Western-style modern dance as a young man in the school of Masumura Katsuko, also a student of Eguchi. [End Page 423]

For modern dancers, individuality was more important than tradition; the rejection of ballet and classicism was a large part of this. Baird sees Hijikata as most thoroughly belonging to the world of modern dance (p. 16). Yet, Hijikata rejected forward-looking modernism as part of his eclectic aesthetic. To a large extent, he discarded his modern dance background, especially its lyrical and narrative tendencies.

His dance is often called postmodern, but that label does not quite suffice, except for the eclecticism it conveys. Violent and clashing extremes are apparent in Hijikata, as Baird points out in several ways, but his dance could also morph to soft registers. Violence was highly de...