- Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits by Bruce Baird
Butoh is a dance form contentiously claimed, and disowned, by practitioners all over the world. Dancers struggle against the dual, constitutive contradictions of the genre: it is, on the one hand, an experimental yet formalized genre, and, on the other, a form that is practiced internationally but associated nonetheless with claims of exclusive lineages and national patrimony. In the most exoticized, ideological versions of such accounts (and the most debilitating from the point of view of practitioners looking to present innovative work), either butoh, or the dancing body itself, is taken as manifesting national cultural essence. But even when such assertions are avoided, butoh presents myriad interpretive difficulties. Nowhere is this more true than within the many works of Hijikata Tatsumi (1928–1986), in performances that first provided the principal articulation of the genre. And with Hijikata himself functioning as a mystified origin point for identification, lineage tracing, and authentication for dancers, critics, and audiences alike, the stakes are high for considering both the “founder” and his works.
Rising to this challenge, Bruce Baird’s Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits offers English-language readers the single most rigorous treatment of Hijikata’s work to date, with a meticulous examination of Hijikata’s major works from the late 1950s to the 1970s. Hijikata’s performances and choreographies in the 1960s in particular comprise the major contribution to the creation of butoh as a recognizable genre of avant-garde dance—a genre that has been constituted retrospectively by projecting back to its earliest experiments and across a range of disparate works only later unified as butoh. Baird’s work takes on a period that is subject to considerable contention, imprecision, and myth-making, reexamining the available evidence piece by piece to consider the works in context. By analyzing Hijikata’s productivity within a historical context, Baird’s contribution takes its place alongside a growing number of studies that deepen our understanding of the significance of Japanese cultural production during the 1960s.
Baird’s dual objects of analysis, and their fraught relationship, are specified in the book’s title. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh plays on the title of a key 1968 performance by Hijikata, titled Hijikata to Nihonjin: Nikutai no hanran (translated by Baird as Hijikata Tatsumi and Japanese People: Rebellion of the Body). The performance is best known by its subtitle, which was appended at the suggestion of novelist and translator of French literature Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. Baird takes up this work’s title in his introduction (before a more extensive discussion in chapter 4), arguing for the primacy of its two themes, their fundamental interrelation, and their interpretive consequences. He [End Page 306] writes: “the relationship between Hijikata and other Japanese people, and the status of the body and rebellion in Hijikata’s dance and thought. These two themes will serve to historicize Hijikata and to counter both readings that see only the body in butoh, and readings that interpret butoh narrowly as an expression of Japanese identity or aesthetics” (p. 5). Baird argues that any analysis of butoh that omits any of these four irreducible elements—Hijikata Tatsumi, Japanese people, rebellion, and the human body—“is incomplete” (p. 4). His intention in this book is to explore, through a historical and conceptual analysis, Hijikata and butoh in parallel—in all their contentiousness and complexity, and with the understanding that the two are not equivalent.
By working strictly within the available sources, proceeding chronologically, and refraining from evocative obscurantism, Baird presents an analysis that necessarily gets off to a slow start. He begins with a consideration of the ostensible ur-performance, 1959’s Forbidden Colors, the first work by Hijikata as a solo choreographer; there were several performances, including two formal stages and a number of informal but photographed and viewed rehearsals. Baird’s interpretation departs from the many examples of a too-easy foundationalism and exaggeration. Taking up such documentary and written...