- Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits by Bruce Baird
In 1984 New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff described butoh—newly arrived in the United States from Japan via France—as "a highly theatrical form" that is "a compound of the grotesque and the beautiful, the nightmarish and the poetic, the erotic and the austere, the streetwise and the spiritual." [End Page 263] Despite butoh's contemporary ubiquity and wide-ranging influences on contemporary dancers and performers, knowledge about the dance's history, and particularly the development of the form by Hijikata (1928-1986) from his first choreographed work in 1959 until his death in 1986, remains sparse, growing surprisingly little over the last three decades. Baird aims to remedy this situation with a meticulously researched description and analysis of Hijikata's most significant choreographic and textual productions in his excellent new book. A particular strength of Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh is Baird's contextualization of the artist's work in Japanese historical, political, and artistic contexts, especially important today when the form is often essentialized as Japanese even as it is universalized—by dancers, critics, and audiences alike.
The book follows a chronological account of Hijikata's artistic production, beginning with his first piece of choreography, 1959's Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki). From early on, Hijikata was a voracious consumer of other artists' work, from which he freely took inspiration. His first work, for example, took its title and theme of male homosexuality from the 1953 novel by Mishima Yukio. Many of Hijikata Tatsumi's early works were presented in shared concerts with other artists. The programs for these concerts featured essays by Hijikata alongside texts by noted writers and artists, including Mishima. At these events—or "experiences," as Hijikata named them—performance and text, writing and movement bumped up against one another, disagreeing and taking inspiration, theorizing and enacting the other. Together they constituted a project to grapple with a society that required its members to manage a surfeit of information in an increasingly competitive environment in order to understand and even alter the artistic practices and social norms of the day in a quest for actuality. Baird attempts to restage these vital and contentious dialogues between performance and text, the body and the word, on the pages of his book in order to capture how butoh was developed in the heady mix of artistic experimentation and foment in Tokyo in the 1960s. A downside of this approach is that the dances sometimes become buried in, rather than explicated by, the texts (including posters and programs) that surrounded them. Of course, this may have also been the effect that they had on the audiences at the time. The dances may have been as overdetermined for their viewers as their descriptions are for Baird's readers.
Within a year, Hijikata abandoned the choreographic approach used for Forbidden Colors in which the dancers execute recognizable movements (walking, running, watching, handing a chicken from one person to the next, two men rolling together in simulation of sodomy) in service of a relatively transparent narrative. His experiments instead turned to fundamentally altering the uses, techniques, and significations of the body. Baird signals this transition through the opposition between what he describes as "mimetic" dances and movement in which Hijikata began exploring "bending joints in the wrong way," a phrase the author uses as shorthand to signal the choreographer's attempt to mobilize a corporeality utterly in opposition to societal or artistic conventions.
When dealing with a period of work that is commonly thought of as [End Page 264] Hijikata's "return to Japan," Baird challenges this work as simple nostalgia for the rural Tohoku of Hijikata's youth. He argues that projects like the photo series with Eikoh Hosoe collected in Kamaitachi (1969) are not a celebration of rural Japan, as they have often been interpreted, but instead are a continuation of the critiques in which Hijikata was already deeply engaged. If the artist was concerned with the...