“Butoh dancers are like a cup filled to overflowing, one which cannot take one more drop of liquid - the body enters a state of perfect balance.''—Ushio Amagatsu, founder of Sankai Juku

Starting in late 1950s and early 1960s Japan, butoh emerged as an avant-garde dance style whose creation can be credited to Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ôno. The form, with its characteristic intensity, was influenced by the emergence of postmodernism and the atomic bombings of Japan. Since then, butoh has spread across the globe. 

During the early 1960s there were two major types of dance forms performed in Japan: traditional Japanese dance (kagura, buyō, and bugaku) and Western dance (classical ballet and modern dance). Butoh performances sought to depart from the aesthetics and the structured forms of Western dance. The early development of modern dance inspired the first butoh dancers to experiment with the idea of creative interactions between form and the spirit of their era. Artists sought new ways to create a dance that would strengthen their country’s culture and focus on the issues and contradictions of the times. 

Butoh breaks from the more traditional forms of Japanese performances by using intense, playful, or grotesque imagery to explore taboo topics. It is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled motion. It embraces themes of death, disease, and mental illness. Dancers frequently appear weakened, emulating dead bodies, with spines bowed and feet shaking. 

Two key artists played a pivotal role in the art form’s development. Kazuo Ôno has been described as the “soul of butoh.” He began studying modern dance in 1933 with Baku Ishii, and used his dancing to express intense moods and feelings. In 1954 he began working with Tatsumi Hijikata on a performance called The Old Man and the Sea based on an adaptation of the Hemingway novel by Nobuo Ikemiya. From this performance forward, he began experimenting with new dance techniques to explore the soul and took the first steps toward what would expand into the butoh form.

Building on Ôno’s foundation, Tatsumi Hijikata expanded the awareness of butoh through his work and his story. He loved to break with convention and turn the accepted ideas of what dance was upside-down. His fire and energy were electric and many musicians, poets, artists, and activists were drawn to him. He forged the concept of Ankoku Butoh (Dance of Darkness) over the course of several years through artistic experimentation and introspection.

One of the first recorded butoh pieces, Hijikata’s Forbidden Colors, premiered at a dance festival in 1959. Based on Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name, the performance explored the theme of homosexuality and resulted in considerable uproar from the audience. Several members of the Japanese Dance Association threatened to resign should similar pieces be presented in the future. However, this did not deter the artists devoted to butoh and helped cement Hijikata’s position as a formidable creative force. 

Starting in the 1980s, butoh experienced a renaissance as butoh groups began performing outside Japan for the first time, including the dance troupe Sankai Juku. 

Sankai Juku was formed in 1975 by director, choreographer, and designer Amagatsu Ushio. He created butoh performances Amagatsu Sho (Homage to the Ancient Dolls) in 1977, Kinkan Shonen (Kumquat Seed) in 1978, and Sholiba in 1979 before the group’s first world tour in 1980 to Europe. Over the past 35 years, the work of Sankai Juku has become known worldwide for its refinement, technical precision, and emotional depth. Amagatsu’s creations are extraordinary visual spectacles and deeply moving theatrical experiences.

Sankai Juku performed at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium back in 2010, and they will return to the Stanford Campus in the fall of 2023 with KŌSA (Between Two Mirrors). Created in 2022, KŌSA consists of excerpts from pieces of Sankai Juku’s repertoire that have been reimagined and reinvented. Amagatsu has built this new work to present the most essential elements of his vision: “By using no decor, only pure dance and the philosophical perception of images, I tried to bring everyone into my universe with as much curiosity as that which inhabited us at the first creation.”

Just as in butoh’s earliest days, Amagatsu’s work remains a response to our times. In KŌSA, Sankai Juku explores themes of anxiety and grief in the visceral, captivating cadence they are known best for. This piece is a meditation on the anxieties acutely felt by many in the past few years during the pandemic and the quickly changing landscape of the world.