Chicago artists discuss the influence of Butoh

Chicago’s eight artists most influenced by Butoh discuss how and why it works for them.

Photograph: Drew Reynolds
From left: Adam Rose, Carole McCurdy, Cristal Sabbagh, Wannapa P-Eubanks, Ginger Krebs, Nicole LeGette, Lily Emerson and Sara Zalek.

Butoh’s staunchest advocate in Chicago, Nicole LeGette, seven other artists and I recently gathered around a table at DEFIBRILLATOR. The Wicker Park performance gallery and LeGette’s blushing poppy productions are in the thick of coproducing four months of classes, talks and shows by field-leading figures. The performance form, once pegged to slow-moving Japanese soloists in white body paint, now encompasses Montreal-based Martine Viale, who just left town, and Mexican artist Diego Piñón, who arrives June 7. Open classes with Katsura Kan, a former member of Japan’s seminal Byakko-sha troupe, begin Tuesday 10.

It was like listening to rock musicians talk about punk in the late 1970s. Lily Emerson said fellow workshop students asked Natsu Nakajima—the founder of Muteki-sha, one of Japan’s first Butoh groups—which next-generation practitioners had earned the name. “Sankai Juku? ‘No!’ Katsura Kan? ‘No!’ In fact,”—Emerson chuckled—“I don’t remember if she said anything going on right now was Butoh. There’s just no easy definition.”

“It actually resists definitions, by definition,” said Ginger Krebs, who leads Wednesday night Butoh workshops in June and July, and whose Butoh-inspired Myth and Continent opens July 22.

As with punk, a better question than who is and who isn’t Butoh might be how a radically new category, with concerns about authenticity at its core, impacts the field as a whole. That said, “it was a conscious decision to call myself Butoh,” stated LeGette, “to participate in the legacy and historical development of this thing, to put myself closer to people who are closer to its origins.”

The next thing I knew, the nine of us had been talking for an hour and a half.


“I immediately felt a kinship with Butoh but it also felt immediately distant and unapproachable.… I felt kind of ashamed [while studying] in Japan that I couldn’t learn this form completely…so I went toward this idea of darkness, and what does darkness mean to a kid from the suburbs, in Western culture. Asking, ‘What is true Butoh?’ is like asking, ‘What is true goth?’ I just started to joke around with those questions.”
Adam Rose, performing May 14 at DEFIBRILLATOR


“As I started taking [Butoh] workshops, I was unearthing…not just memories, but things that felt ancestral.… I also pull from hip-hop. I pull from African dance. Now that I have a kid, I’m influenced by her, too, you know? And, for me, race is something that needs to be addressed. I wouldn’t [perform to] Japanese music. I had to make this stuff personal, not paint from someone else’s jar.”
Cristal Sabbagh, performing June 19 at DEFIBRILLATOR in the next Food & Performance Showcase


“It’s so raw. I don’t expect to scare [people], but it’s just so new to them. It’s emotion. It’s honesty. It’s the truth…and, for some people, it’s just not their cup of tea. It’s too slow, or too intense, or they wonder, ‘What’s the point?’ But I feel every muscle in my body after a performance.”
Wannapa P-Eubanks, performing July 15 at Dance/USA


LE: There’s a common misconception that it’s people in white body paint doing painful things really slowly.

NL: …And that it’s traditional, or ancient, from the time of Noh [theater] or Kabuki, when in fact it’s a contemporary form.


“At the root of Butoh is transformation: in myself, in the people I’m performing with, in the audience and then in the greater society. I feel like that’s what [Butoh artists] wanted from the beginning.… And the amount of listening that it trains you to do goes beyond any other art form. You’re listening to the body, to the world, listening to things that we barely understand. That’s why I think it’s particularly important now.”
Sara Zalek, performing with Rose in Krebs’s Myth and Continent beginning July 22


GK: This notion that Butoh is not up-to-date or somehow inconsistent with postmodernism is a real misconception, particularly [Nakajima’s teacher, Butoh cofounder Tatsumi] Hijikata’s stuff, which was so layered and fractured. It’s not a way to return to some idea of the pre-socialized self. What Butoh proposes is way more complex than that.

NL: That is one of the trends in Butoh today: this romanticization, this idealization…

…When it actually forces you to filter out your clichés about what an ‘essence’ might be, or what ‘nature’ means…to hold multiple truths at the same time, and let go of narrative.
Carole McCurdy, performing May 14 at DEFIBRILLATOR and May 27 at praxis place


“As an audience member, it’s not just given to you. You have to engage with it, and every [viewer’s experience of the same performance] will be different.”
LE, performing in Superman 2050, five Saturdays at midnight at Donny’s Skybox beginning May 21

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