Dancing to words 

Cynthia Gralla sheds butoh light on darkness

Butoh, the avant-garde Japanese dance of utter darkness, translates literally to stomping dance, but try to define that dance in greater detail and you’ll be struggling to pinpoint the pulse of nothing less than the human condition. Born in post-World War II Japan and first performed in 1959, butoh is a physical representation of that which we deem absurd, or ugly, or fundamental about life. As such, butoh is a dance intimately connected to language. And if studying butoh can be torturously exacting—dancers perfect the motion of a single finger bone, or the simple act of walking—writing about butoh might be even more daunting.

But butoh performer and author Cynthia Gralla has tackled both arts: After studying the dance in Japan, she published her first novel, The Floating World, which explores in black-and-white the culture, history and experience of butoh. On Friday, August 8, she will perform her first-ever combination butoh dance-and-book-reading at the Goatsilk Gallery.

Gralla helps demystify butoh by breaking it down into two main styles: slow and lyrical versus violent and twisted. In America, she says, most people think of butoh dancers as painted white, their bodies shaved, performing painfully slow and often contorted movements—imagery that draws on the Japanese experience of the Hiroshima bombing. David C. Earhart, PhD, administrator of UM’s Montana Museum of Art and Culture, concurs that the essence of butoh grew out of World War II’s devastation: “To see entire cities, metropoli even, turned to desert and to see human beings turned to charcoal is to wonder what it means to be human, if being human means anything at all.”

But butoh is not always ponderous, says Gralla. It can be frenetic, too. “The movements in butoh are not meant to be pretty,” she says. “They want to articulate certain feelings, but it’s not like pirouettes. It’s a dance that can be very violent, or have a great sense of humor.” It’s not like mime, either, she adds. “It’s more like expressing emotions in a visceral way.”

Swift or measured, angry or funny, butoh is mesmerizing. The stark facial expressions and the white paint accentuating every blink and wrinkle command attention. Gralla herself was first drawn to butoh in college, when she spent a junior-year semester in Tokyo and then returned for another year after graduation. In her time there, she studied with one of the two founders of butoh, Kazuo Ohno.

“It was more like an acting class in some ways,” she says. “He’d give lots of images and ask you to portray certain things. Portray the feeling of giving a flower to your mother. Pretend to be a fox going to smell the cherry blossoms.” It was images such as these that led Gralla to feel that “so many of the dancers, and Ohno…use such beautiful words to inspire their students. Like hearing the line of a song, or poem.”

Moved by language’s importance to butoh, Gralla “wanted to work with that and write a book that’s centered around that.” The Floating World is the story of an American girl navigating the foreign culture—and underworld—of Japan and butoh. In it, Gralla does a rhythmic job of describing the dance:

“An art apophatic, often defined by what it is not. The practitioners of this dance, their faces and bodies painted dead-white, were known to shave their heads, shed their clothes, dress in drag, speak in tongues (while distending their own), flail their limbs, contort their faces, spit roses, dance on glass, hang from buildings, spend hours without moving, rehearse by night, go mad by day.”

This description blends Ohno’s deliberate style with the more aggressive style of butoh’s other founding father, Tatsumi Hijikata. Raised poor in rural Japan, Hijikata emphasized the importance of returning to the motions of nature—stooping like a farmer, crouching closer to earth, keeping your center of gravity low. He focused on movement training, where, as Gralla describes it, “you’re trying to articulate each one of your toes.” She says Hijikata operated by the tenet that “if you want something right, you have to get the basics right,” and held tight to the nationalist belief that you had to be Japanese to truly understand this art form.

Today, however, butoh is increasingly studied in other countries. “Butoh is for all times and ages,” says the Montana Museum’s Earhart, “insofar as it is also about hope: cities rise again from ashes…Children play in a flower-filled park, unaware that the same plot of earth had been a mass grave…Despair and hope, atrocity and innocence—such contradictions that define the human condition are exactly the stuff of butoh.”

Gralla’s performance on Friday will be less social or political commentary, however, than homage to her teacher, Ohno, and to the butoh dancers with whom she studied. Gralla won’t be shaving her head, but she will wear the white paint and traditional costume during the 25-minute performance in the exhibition space of Goatsilk Gallery.

Co-curators of Goatsilk Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters see the performance as a fitting reflection of the shows their gallery hosts. From a recent exhibit about the ritual of weddings to next month’s show made up entirely of works bought on eBay, Goatsilk is a clean, well-lighted space in which to experiment with all kinds of gestures—both subtle and brash—that get us a little bit closer to defining what, exactly, we’re all about.

Cynthia Gralla performs at Goatsilk Gallery, 1909 Wyoming St., #5, on Friday, August 8, at 7 PM.

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