During the social upheaval and rapid Westernization of Japan following World War II, the dance form known as butoh emerged. Unlike anything traditional Japanese or Western culture had seen before, butoh (originally “ankoko butoh”) began as an avant-garde dance practice that offered both a new means of expression to its practitioners and a fundamentally different way of life. At once grotesque and humorous, erotic and violent, the first butoh performers explored a range of issues previously considered inappropriate for the content of dance, such as decay, devastation and the loss of nature in post-A-bomb Japan. Today, almost 50 years later, there are nearly as many ways of performing butoh as there are artists exploring the form.
In the Spark episode “Frontiers of Dance,” the dancers of the Salt Farm Butoh Dance Company and their artistic director Ledoh work on a new piece called “River of Sand,” an exploration of Ledoh’s birthplace. Complete with music and visual projections, the group worked on the various elements of the performance for months before the event at the Headlands Center for the Arts (HCA). As participants in the HCA’s resident artist program, the Salt Farm members have been working on the costuming, set design, lights and music and sharing the activities of their daily lives.
Ledoh was born into the Karen hilltribe of Burma. He relocated to the United States, then returned to Asia in the late 1980s, to Japan, where he first encountered butoh. Ledoh remained in Japan through the early 1990s as a member of the Saltimbanques dance troupe, led by longtime butoh dancer Katsura Khan. Now a resident of the Bay Area, Ledoh is using butoh as a vehicle to uncover his Burmese ancestry while also exploring universal themes of understanding that connect him and his audiences.
Unlike many modern dancers who are also choreographers, Ledoh resists the structure of choreography in his work and the work of his company. Instead he opts to invite the dancers to improvise and explore themes and movements together, alternately leading and following. Ledoh directs and guides the dancers, but ultimately even the performance is not choreographed in the traditional sense.
The success of a Salt Farm butoh performance is also gauged differently than other modern dance performances. One of Ledoh’s fundamental beliefs is that the audience must be physically, mentally and emotionally present, therefore participating fully in the moment. In order for this to occur, the dancers in a butoh performance must also be fully present to draw audience members into the transformative possibilities of the performance. According to Ledoh, “To see a good butoh performance is to be present in the space and be enveloped by it.”