Moving Heaven and Mud: Concepts of Second Nature in German and Japanese Modern Dance

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Gilbert Scott Building - Room 132 (University of Glasgow)
Ana Isabel Keilson , History, Columbia University
In 1959, Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-1996) shocked the Japanese art world with Forbidden Colors, a dance performance featuring animal sacrifice, simulated pedophilia, and a bizarre lexicon of movement gesture that inaugurated Butoh as Japan’s new dance of the avant-garde for a postwar generation. With its stage depictions of the human body, nightmarish landscapes, and psychological and sexual perversion, Butoh in the late 1950s and 1960s described a new kind of human who was driven by its encounters with the extremes of human nature and the natural world – and which seemingly reflected the experience of a nation and environment impacted by nuclear devastation. Yet Hijikata’s work, together with that of Butoh co-founder Ohno Kazuo, had its roots in a longer tradition of dance modernism that was not unique to Japan: German modern dance, which developed before WWII and cast dance as a method to understand the nature of human behavior and politics in the context of a changing society. This paper examines the influence of German dance – in particular, the work of performer, dance-maker, and pedagogue Mary Wigman (1886-1973) – on the early Butoh movement and its ideas about human nature, environment, and transformation. Specifically, it argues that the founders of Butoh took their cues from German dancers to cast dance as the creative reinvention of the human being who, while driven by nature and located in a new theatrical environment, could ultimately overcome nature to alter society.