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  • Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy
  • Holly A. Blumner (bio)
Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy. By Sondra Fraleigh. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2010. ix, 265 pages. $85.00, cloth; $30.00, paper.

In an essay called “History Lessons,” Sondra Fraleigh asks, “The question for me as an audience is one of perception and response. What do I feel in the presence of this work? How do I change? What do I understand or learn?” (p. 104). The questions were posed in reaction to early feminist responses to Pina Bausch, and they can also be asked in evaluating Fraleigh’s new book. Perhaps this work’s most valuable contribution to the field is that it takes butō out of Japan and puts it into a global context. Fraleigh begins by writing a brief history of butō and its founders and then introduces us to a different generation of butō-ka (butō performers). Like Fraleigh’s 1999 book, Dancing into Darkness: Butoh, Zen, and Japan (University of Pittsburgh Press) this work is part memoir, part explanation, and part musings on butō.

The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 consists of three chapters in which Fraleigh introduces her theories on butō as metamorphosis, alchemy, and philosophy. She asks herself: How is the body contextualized in butō? How is butō performed and presented? How does the audience perceive of butō (p. 41)? Within her book, Fraleigh attempts to answer these questions.

Chapter 1, “Butoh Alchemy,” includes differing philosophies of dance by Ohno Kazuo and Hijikata Tatsumi. Ohno experienced war as a soldier and a prisoner. He danced, Fraleigh explains, to heal himself. Hijikata began dancing as part of the underground art scene in Tokyo, which espoused an aesthetic that rebelled against the modernist movement in Japan after the war (p. 29). Fraleigh outlines some of the early European influences on butō (German expressionism, Neue Tanz, Mary Wigwam) as well as reactions against the West (World War II and the United States–Japan security agreement).

Describing butō performed by Ohno, Hijikata, and other performance artists, she argues, “Metamorphic and transformational, butoh is a bodily type of alchemy that is often healing . . . . Dancers embody images and elements, compress, expand, and morph through changing states in relation to others and the earth within a global community” (p. 41). She provides justification for her claim that both healing and shamanistic qualities of butō manifest in performance at sites of natural and man-made disasters.

In chapter 2, “The Morphology of Butoh,” Fraleigh explains how she [End Page 439] views butō as metamorphic and transformational for both the dancer and the audience. She states that hokōtai, the basic walk for butō, provides a feeling of eternity that in turn suggests a “nondualistic, timeless nature” (p. 49). Different movements in performance in addition to hokōtai—including “shifting the pain body, shedding, squatting, whitening, costuming, spiritual passage, ash, and ‘the body that becomes’”—contribute to butō’s transformative qualities. The definitions and examples Fraleigh provides for these elements comprise one of the strongest parts of the chapter.

Chapter 3 poses a question in its title, “Is Butoh a Philosophy?” Fraleigh answers: “Yes, it is an unfinished metaphysical philosophy of the dancing body that accounts for weakness and death, identifying with nature, decay, regeneration, and transformation. Its context is metaphoric and its politics anti-utopian” (p. 76). Drawing on models such as Japanese phenomenology, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and Carl Jung’s views on the collective unconscious, Fraleigh provides reasons why butō can serve as both a philosophy and a type of theater. These chapters on alchemy, metamorphosis, and philosophy introduce and explain the essays in the second section of the book.

Part 2 features 20 short essays on butō and butō-ka written between 1973 and 2008. Fraleigh approaches the essays from a phenomenological perspective incorporating brief descriptions of movement, her feelings and impressions about the dance, and poetry inspired by the performances. Fraleigh sets the scenes for the dances and includes a few sentences of physical description of the space, costume, and movement for each. In many of the essays, she includes personal responses about the dance in real time...


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pp. 439-442
Launched on MUSE
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