Seattle Butoh Festival 2021

FemAlchemy: Seattle Butoh Festival 2021

by Justin Jesty

Seattle dance collective DAIPANbutoh held their annual butoh festival, November 19-21 at the Yaw Theater in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. Spanning three nights of performance and two afternoon workshops, the festival was a tour-de-force, featuring eight original performances centered on the work of DAIPANbutoh members and visiting dancer and choreographer, Vangeline. Several of the performances included original music, poetry, and costume design and were accompanied live musical performance, creating an immersive, multi-sensory exploration of women’s ancestral experience and a meditative celebration of the powers of women’s bodies.

Butoh is an expressionist form of modern dance that originated in Japan post-1945 and has since spread around the world. Its pioneers Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-1986) and Ohno Kazuo (1906-2010) opposed orthodoxy and codification and, in avant-garde fashion, understood butoh as a way of life, beyond the boundaries of art and stage. Butoh’s permeability and exploratory orientation have enabled it to flourish as one of the most generative forms of contemporary performance, while its vision of alternative lifestyles intersects with yoga, somatics, meditation, and low impact living. At its most fundamental, butoh’s understanding of life reaches beyond the individual: people are born and die in cycles that interconnect all things across and through the individual body. The DAIPANbutoh website and festival pamphlet feature two quotes from Hijikata that offer slightly different perspectives on this principle. “We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body; this is the unlimited power of Butoh,” and “Be reborn always and everywhere, again and again.” As a form of dance, butoh seeks to allow the body to move in dis-integrated ways so that it can register subconscious, unassimilated impulses.

Women have historically been marginalized in the butoh’s canon—a problem that this year’s festival drew attention to with its theme, FemAlchemy. Given that butoh is so critical of the modern ideology of man as unitary, rational, and self-determining, women’s experiences and perspectives are a source of special value. Each performance touched on the theme, but were diverse in tone and style. In Eternity 123, Vangeline began with an achingly disciplined posture, her figure adorned in an elaborately embroidered white gown brightly lit by a spotlight directly overhead. As minutes passed, her hands rose into the air and faint, whisper-like movements emerged, first in the fingers, eventually arriving at the clasp that would undo the first layer of the gown. The piece traced a “symbolic journey of women’s emancipation across time” yet the tension between intense static poses and faint movements above and beyond remained all the way to the end. Joan Laage’s Rivers Running Red explored a series of associations with the cycle of menstruation while Alycia Scott Zollinger’s Murmur composed “a somatic ode to the complexities of becoming and being a mother.” Robyn Bjornson’s Grandmother’s Hands and Sheri Brown’s Red Wolfe Dragonfly explored transformation and life course, Bjornson’s piece particularly good at building rhythmic compositions from infant-like impulsive movements. Helen Thorsen’s Pearl began with the dancers emerging from colorful soft shells and reveled in the irreverent, clownish side of butoh. Kaoru Okumura and Aoi Lee’s piece AWAHI—World of Woe, The Pure Land was inspired by Eugene Smith’s photographs of Minamata, and was accompanied by noh chanting performed by Kanoh Satoko. Dhyana García’s Sakti: Exquisite Complexity used black costumes and a geometric headpiece that covered the dancer’s entire head to suggest more abstract qualities of relationship, refusing the flesh-and-bone understanding of the body that tends to dominate butoh. Two UW students Emma Parkinson, and Yutong Sun and one WWU alumni Kintla Wheeler, participated in the performance.

The festival explored the female body’s connectedness to celestial rhythms, to memories accumulated in the transgenerational echoes of habit and sensibility, and to other lives in the ongoing event of birth and rebirth. Together the performances testified to the strength, resilience, and boundless creativity that come from outside the self, in moments of precarious transformation and in offering oneself up to interconnection with others.

* Unless otherwise noted all citations come from DAIPANbutoh’s website: