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Queer Butoh: Finding Belonging in the Dance of Darkness

The performance series Queer Butoh may seem as if it were marrying two disparate things. But queerness has informed Butoh — an avant-garde movement, born in Japan after World War II — since its inception.

“People who feel different feel at home in Butoh,” said Vangeline, a dancer and choreographer who founded the New York Butoh Institute, which produces Queer Butoh with Howl Arts. The performances in the series’ fourth annual edition, which begins on Monday, will be streamed, prerecorded, on Vimeo and Howlarts.org, through June 28.

Queerness was part of the very first Butoh performance, in 1959: Tatsumi Hijikata’s “Forbidden Colors,” based on Yukio Mishima’s homoerotic novel of that name — a Japanese euphemism for homosexuality. Hijikata, who called the genre ankoku butoh, or “dance of darkness,” used an experimental strain of dance that merged movement, theater and performance art. To depict a primal affair between a man and boy, he remained low to the ground, alternating between long bouts of stillness and erratic gestures. At the piece’s climax, he smothered a live chicken, killing it between his thighs, in a symbolic act of consummation.

Since “Forbidden Colors,” queer themes and imagery have been reoccurring, if not instrumental, in Butoh. The concepts of otherness and ambiguity, particularly with respect to gender identity and sexuality, permeate its narratives. Drag, androgyny and fluidity are staple elements.

In an email, Stephen Barber, the author of “Hijikata: Revolt of the Body,” said, “Butoh has always been an aberrant, gender reversing, provocative and notoriety inciting art form, driven by sexual questionings.”

Unlike most traditional forms of dance, it does not seek to please or entertain. Butoh movements are frequently about the reinvention of the human body,” Barber wrote, “often through radical, confrontational, and even dangerous acts, and have a strong sexual charge.”

Its hunched crawls, seizure-like convulsions, and silent screams aim to uncover ugly or uncomfortable truths. Practitioners shy away from the word “choreography,” which implies a predetermined sequence and set timing. Performers are not told how to move but rather what feeling to embody; movements are discovered rather than imposed.

Vangeline, who has taught Butoh in New York since 2002, said the idea for the performance series was born when a student told her that Butoh class was the only place where he felt a sense of belonging in the world. “In the real world, members of marginalized communities have to be tough and courageous to survive,” Vangeline said. “Butoh is a very inclusive and vulnerable space, and I think queer people in particular crave that kind of safety.”

In a series of sometimes emotional phone conversations, the dancers participating in the 2020 showcase shared how the dance of darkness has helped them explore, express and accept their queer identity.

Drag is a cornerstone of the Butoh practice of Mee Ae Caughey, a dancer and choreographer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and discovered Butoh while studying at Bard College. “It made every other form of dance feel very superficial,” she said.

Caughey, 43, describes her dancing as a form of shape shifting. In her Butoh pieces, she transforms from character to character, distinguishing each new entity with shifts in tempo and gesture. “When I’m dancing, I can be a man,” she said. “I can be a woman. I can be gay or straight. I can change in an instant. I can explore those identities with no limitations.”

Her Queer Butoh performance, “Swoon,” about a stifled crush and the feelings of shame, uncertainty and conflict that often accompany same-sex attraction. “My solos allow me to dance out feelings of deep desire that I don’t have anywhere else to place,” she said. “It helps me transform feelings of pain and oppression into power and connection.”

“Queerness and Butoh are like the perfect marriage,” said Davey Mitchell, a New York City dancer. The two are linked, he said, by a commitment to inclusivity. “Butoh accepts dancers at all levels and honors their voice, regardless of their background. Both allow you to express yourself honestly.”

Mitchell, 60, who trained in contemporary and African dance, said the slow, meditative movements of Butoh offered a refreshing change in tempo. “Butoh is almost like the counteraction to my previous work, because its power comes from stillness.”

He calls his Queer Butoh performance, “Diary of a Mad Swan,” a vigil for the many young L.G.B.T.Q. lives lost to suicide. He hopes it awakens the audience’s senses to a tragedy that all too often registers as a statistic, he said. “It’s not like my traditional dance numbers, where I try to make people feel happy or good about themselves.”

Scoop Slone, who became interested in Butoh while developing a Geisha-inspired drag character, said: “My searches into Japanese avant-garde led me to these dance performances with extremely odd and beautiful costumes.”

The artist’s Queer Butoh piece “Fragments” begins with a painful and isolated sexual awakening. Slone, who doesn’t use a pronoun, said: “There can be a lot of self-hatred in those moments,” for queer people, “especially if you have people telling you what you are is wrong.”

Both the story and Slone’s elaborate costume, which is made of material fragments like rubber bands, zip ties, paper straws, pompoms and wood, are about piecing together a sense of self.

Slone has felt grateful to have Butoh during the coronavirus epidemic, saying: “I often thought ‘thank god I have Butoh’ because it’s always a safe place to go.”

Born into a Mormon family with eight children in Albuquerque, N.M., Dustin Maxwell is a movement-based visual artist who now lives in New York. “Butoh requires that you move beyond the surface of the body and conditioned movements, but also of who you are and who you think you are,” Maxwell, 38, said.

Butoh has helped him break free of the binary terms that he uses to identify socially, like “gay” and “cis.” Through it, he said, “I have come to understand there is no name for my gender or sexuality, there is only my gender and my sexuality.”

In his multimedia Queer Butoh piece, titled “in a dark forest partly illuminated: portal,” he moves in all of the ways “that men are not supposed to,” he said, describing his choreography as “quiet, gentle, slow, continuous, meditative and wormlike.”

Maxwell said it was important to understand that the darkness Butoh welcomes is neither evil nor taboo. “The darkness is the great mystery, something that we can’t name, but we know and feel,” he said. And he would like viewers to consider his performance as a collaborative venture: “Please know that it is an opportunity to explore the darkness and unknown of your own body.”

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