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Reviewed by:
  • Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy
  • Zack Fuller
Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. By Sondra Fraleigh. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 251 pp. Cloth, $85; paper, $30.

Since the early 1980s, when groups like Sankai Juku and Dairakuda-kan first toured in the United States and Europe, audiences have been fascinated by the shaved heads, white makeup, slow movement, and striking visual imagery that have come to define butoh for audiences worldwide. At the same time, numerous performing artists have been inspired to study butoh themselves, creating an increasingly large number of non-Japanese butoh and "butoh-inspired" dancers. Fraleigh's third book on the topic of butoh is the first book-length study in English to attempt an analysis of the movement as a whole since Susan Blakely Klein's Ankoku Butoh: The Premodern and Postmodern Influences on the Dance of Utter Darkness (Klein 1988) and the first ever to give significant space to its adoption by non-Japanese performers. Fraleigh presents butoh as a global, shamanistic healing practice: an "alchemical form" (p. 16) characterized by transformation (or "morphing") that employs surrealist strategies to liberate the unconscious, fosters the creation of "personal ethnologies" (p. 31), and builds community. The book is divided into two main sections. The first presents her overall view of butoh, heavily colored by her personal universalist metaphysics. The second, longer section consists of performance reviews, many of which are accompanied by Fraleigh's own poetry, composed in response to the dances. A brief third section looks at the ursprung of butoh, which the author finds in the shamanist basis of Hijikata Tatsumi's and Ohno Kazuo's collaboration, and their differing responses to the devastation of World War II.

Fraleigh is at her best when describing individual performances. Her reviews present a diverse sampling of dance works, many by artists of whom little has been written. Her descriptions of pieces by the Swedish dancer SU-EN, Takenouchi Atsushi, UK-based Marie-Gabrielle Roti, Yoshioka Yumiko, Eiko and Koma, Endo Tadashi, the Mexican "butoh ritual" dancer Diego Piñón, and others are at times insightful, if tinged by her own subjective concerns. Her descriptions give exposure to the diverse work of these dancer-choreographers, and her own experience training with Ohno Kazuo adds a practitioner's insight to her analyses.

Unfortunately Fraleigh's attempts to define a philosophical and ideological framework for butoh are alternately reductive and vague. She is remarkably uncritical of what she calls "the globalization of butoh," (p. 33) and finds nothing problematic in the use of this term by non-Japanese to describe dance that bears little relation to the groundbreaking work of Japanese avant-garde choreographers in the 1960-1970s. Indeed Fraleigh feels that butoh in its widespread diffusion has surpassed its "nativist" origins. She refers to Hijikata's dance as characterized by "limited political surrealism" (p. 2) and writes: "Butoh is one of several words for 'dance' in Japan, but it has become more than this internationally, attaining an identity through the work of adherents who seek a more satisfying rapport of East with West than has been established in Japan—where the United States bases nuclear warheads" (p. 4). [End Page 321]

Coupled with the idea that its adoption by non-Japanese gave butoh a new and improved identity is the idea that for Western practitioners butoh provides what the West is lacking. This clearly emerges in the section on squatting, which Fraleigh identifies as one means employed by butoh-ka (butoh dancers) of "shedding" societally determined somatic forms. While squatting is difficult for Westerners because "social constructions of the body in the West outlaw squatting in public," in Japan people of all ages are able to squat. In a moment of striking Eurocentrism Fraleigh notes that it is not only the Japanese who have this ability: "Children and monkeys do squat with ease, however, but most people lose this ability as they grow up in societies that never crouch" and "proponents of butoh don't want to lose the natural, animal, and childlike squat"(p. 53). Since in Japan squatting is not considered childlike or animal-like, to define it as such in this...