From Noh to Butoh and beyond: historical and contemporary physical theatre practice in Japan

Unit 32 – Developing Physical Theatre

Analyse working and training methods, aesthetics and style, theme and content of one historical and one contemporary Physical Theatre practitioner

Theatre Noh     

Derived from the Sino-Japanese word for skill or talent, the classical Japanese theatre form Noh is a multi-disciplinary art form which can be considered ‘total theatre’, with its integration of chant, music, mask, costumes and props in a dance-based performance. Rooted in the rustic ‘Dengaku no Noh’ or ‘field music performance’ popular in the the thirteenth century, by the fourteenth century Noh became a kind of opera of recital and dance which then developed into a more serious dramatic performance. In 1647 the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (military ruler) ordered that no variations were allowed in the performance of Noh, and from that point onwards everything from stage directions to costumes and masks became fixed and defined.   

Noh claims to be the oldest continually performed theatre in the world, and indeed some 200 Noh plays are currently performed in Japan, with texts based on tales from traditional literature and often featuring a supernatural being takes human form as narrator and/or protagonist. Roles such as women, children, old people, ghosts and demons are represented by Noh’s iconic masks, of which there are hundreds of variations – the expression of the masks is neutral, requiring the skill of the actor to bring it to life, with a codified repertoire of stylised gestures used to convey emotions. In what tends to be a somewhat  slow-paced performance, elaborate costumes are an important means of engaging the audience’s attention and often signify a particular context or setting.

A traditional Noh programme features five Noh plays interspersed with comedic kyōgen plays, preceded on special occasions by an okina, a kind of sacred rite. Proud of its heritage as the oldest continually performed theatre in the world, Noh has a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation and is regulated by the iemoto system (in which a ‘grand master’ protects the traditions of the school, issues and approves teaching licences and certificates and may also instruct advanced practitioners).

Noh is prominent among the Eastern theatre traditions which have influenced practitioners of physical theatre. Jacques Lecoq based his neutral mask on the calm mask of Noh, while theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Jacques Copeau and Joan Littlewood have all been consciously influenced by the form. Within Japan itself, the Noh tradition also informed the work of native practitioners such as Tadashi Suzuki, who drew on the form’s physical training in his development of training for actors. The Butoh movement, discussed below in greater detail, also echoed the form’s imagery and physicality – which in turn continues to influence Western practitioners.

Sankai Juku

Contemporary Japanese dance theatre company Sankai Juku was formed in 1975 by Ushio Amagatsu and has enjoyed international acclaim since first touring overseas in the 1980s with its second-generation interpretation of the dance form butoh. Originally called “ankoku butoh,” or “dance of darkness”, this avant-garde form simultaneously drew from Japanese culture and revolted against it, with taboo-busting imagery and improvised, often grotesque movement. Apart from the iconic visual spectacle of the dancers themselves – white-painted, shaven-headed and often semi-naked – the ethereal serenity of Sankai Juku’s work may seem to have little in common with the provocative first wave of butoh, an explicitly underground movement which emerged at a time when Japan’s national moral and cultural identity post-war was in a great state of flux. However, personal interpretation has defined the form since its inception by collaborators Kazuo Ohno, whose gentler, dreamier movements contrast with those of his collaborator Hijikata’s darker, more confrontational dynamic – in Edin Velez’s 1989 documentary Dance of Darkness, Ohno explains that he seeks to “carry in my body all the weight and mystery of life, to follow my memories until I reach my mother’s womb”, while Hijikata is quoted thus: “To make gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead re-enact their deaths, this is what I want to experience. We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body; this is the unlimited power of butoh.”

Amagatsu, trained in Western modern dance and ballet before becoming a founder member of butoh group Dairakudakan before establishing Sankai Juku, stated in a 2006 interview that he considered the themes of his work to be human beings and human nature, the importance of the universality of the human being but also the differences that inform individual culture – his work has been described as ‘the East seen through the eyes of the West’. More directly traceable to the ankoku butoh of Hijikata (described in Velez’s documentary as a ‘descent into the unconscious’, a ‘dance that crawled on the earth), Amagatsu recognises his own form of butoh to still be “a dialogue with gravity”, a downward-orientated, earth-bound dance in contrast to the upward energy of western dance forms. Sometimes using the whole body and sometimes only isolated body parts, movements can be barely perceptible to the point of being tableau-like, sequences can move smoothly or abruptly from repetitive patterns into a disjointed array of contorted shapes and expressions. These ‘emotional postures’ and ‘silent shrieks’ of pain or ecstasy are a common device used in butoh. Overall however, the work deliberately renounces the movements typical of any other dance forms as Amagatsu’s method seeks to draw the movement from within. “We don’t use mirrors, because I don’t like the dancers to change their movement when they see themselves,” he told an interviewer in 1999 when discussing the company’s daily training practice. “My way of doing is not speed or shape but the consciousness of the dancer.”


A conversation with Ushio Amagatsu on behalf of Pomegranate Arts, Kyoko Yoshida (2006)

The aliens have landed, Nadine Meisner, The Independent (1999)

Dance of Darkness (1989), documentary, Edin Velez

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