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Dance of darkness

  • A school in Dharamsala is teaching a 60-year-old Japanese dance form
  • Butoh doesn’t have stringent rules but the three main things to keep in mind during classes, according to Lee, are: no talking, no skipping sessions and no tardiness

Rhizome Lee during a Butoh performance.
Rhizome Lee during a Butoh performance. (Raúl Bartolomé)

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A short walk downhill from the colourful market in McLeodganj is Illiterati Café. It’s all wood and books, tourists and Instagram influencers. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the mighty Dhauladhar range, strangers talk to each other over cups of coffee and carrot cake as swing jazz or retro indipop tunes fill the space. Also visible from here, among dense clusters of deodar trees, is a green roof. The friendly waitstaff at the café will tell you this is a Butoh school, and point to a flyer pinned on the counter with other brochures about activities on offer in the hill town.

“Butoh is a revolution of beauty. The essence of Butoh is to find new beauty which normal people don’t regard as beauty,” says Rhizome Lee, who is in his 70s, on his YouTube channel. Lee runs the school with the green roof, Subbody Resonance Butoh Himalaya, which he set up 14 years ago in Dharamsala. “After researching places around the world, I found Dharamsala to be perfect for a Butoh school because of the mix of Western and Eastern people, the friendly atmosphere, a beautiful natural setting,” he says over email.

In the simplest terms, Butoh is a form of Japanese dance theatre, first performed in 1959 by the Tokyo-based dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. In contrast to Japan’s neat structures and design consciousness, Butoh defies form or classification. “It incorporates the marginalized aspects of life, and is a hybrid of endless art forms ranging from dance, theatre, acting and performance art to ritual, ” Lee says. He discovered the form when Tatsumi came to perform at his university in Kyoto.

Performers and students are usually dressed minimally, often in torn or stained clothes, their bodies and faces smeared with chalky white paint. Butoh is dark, and, as Lee puts it, seeks to shatter hierarchies and ideas of what “normal people” see as ugly and beautiful. It is often jarring or shocking—leaving Himachali locals equal parts intrigued and put off when Butoh dancers perform on the streets. Though it may have undergone stylistic changes over the last six decades, it retains its soul, which sought to subvert hyper-stylized dance movements in Japan and around the world. “Butoh expands not only human expressions—human expressions are very narrow. We break this border and expand to wider resonance. We resonate with all kinds of life—bacteria, amoeba, dust insects, we resonate with life’s issues,” says Lee in the video.

Classes at Subbody Resonance Butoh Himalaya involve a warm-up, with the session usually beginning at 10am. Two hours later, students break for lunch, returning for lessons until 5pm. “Class exercises can range from extraordinarily subtle, which can look like meditation, to quite physically active,” says Lee. “Because Butoh is an art about resonating with the body and emotions, it tends to expand the range of what is physically possible for the body, and experiments with unconventional methods of working with emotions,” he adds.

Butoh doesn’t have stringent rules but the three main things to keep in mind during classes, according to Lee, are: no talking, no skipping sessions and no tardiness. As Lee says: “People do not need to know anything before going to Butoh. It is often even better to go into Butoh with a clean slate because often people cannot shake off their past conditioning.”

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