“Inhabit your Destiny, live your future,” the riff of the teacher, in his deep, spanish-accented voice, directs the eight of us. We move through the space, circling each other in the blackened, and soundless theater, dimly lit, the radiation of the sun beating on and through the loft of the roof. I signed up for a 2-month creative cohort workshop, where we will present our work as a performance. Led by a man who dances his life, he is the container for the work and the work is all about the operative word of “opening.” At first, the idea of opening sounds like a ridiculous enterprise, but read below and see what happens…
Stretching, rocking, I prepare myself for the unfolding of what is next. The swish sound of busy feet on the plywood-covered stage is in front of a low beat of looped tribal music pushing from speakers. At the teacher’s instruction, we gather, clutching a rope, allowing the braided nylon to slide through the fingers. In the way the energy speaks through the voice of the teacher, he implores us to, “abandon our habitual selves, our habitual body, to reach and touch our delicate ordinariness, the expanse of our mundane everyday wonder.” I have no clue as to where he is asking me to go but I get it that my thinking won’t get me there. My muscles contract, my bones bend and the hair on my skin stands out as I follow the lead of the teacher. In some unknown way my heart matches the beat of the others as I convince my feet and toes to embrace the floor. I spread my fingers, willing them to open, one by one. Touching the three places with my fingertips with rapid determination, pelvis, heart, and forehead, my hips begin to unwind, my chest opens and I come home to the vigor of my breath. With intention, another version of tension, I apply myself. Lurch, abandon, open, clench, push, rest, and ply, I generate from my insides out as I move. I work on the fire within, tend to it, feel it sear against my insides, the carbon taste filling my mouth, brackish wet in my nostrils. From there I push out, and express. I operate. As the teacher says, I “activate.” And from this inside place, this ordinary self living in my skin, this version of me that is now in the same location, now caught up after years of pushing away from the past, from this place, I butoh. Yes indeed, I said “I butoh.” The word, now a verb, an action, an experience, never a static and fixed thing. Never a noun. Never a word on a page. Now, only a signifier of a process.
I identify as a painter by choice and inclination—a visual explorer. I am not interested in viewing art or studying the legacy of any painterly school, I simply paint. This is my science, where I pose the question and discover, on my own, what becomes. My growth thus far has been a perpetual approach to the edge of my self—to the tipping point, where everything is on the line. All is at stake. Risk, life and death, are all part of the edge that I slide my paint into. And it is not enough. Where I lack, I make it up. Where the details are fuzzy, I get more specific in my invention. And often, the work is shit. And because of this edge, I often don’t paint. Then, I do. Sometimes I just want it to be fun again. Sometimes it is.
There are people who say that a true artist can apply themselves to any medium and produce an event or piece of work that is reflective of their essence: a work that reflects the maturity and aesthetic of the vision contained within the artist’s heart. In the case of butoh, the body becomes the body of work—applied physiology. As I jump into myself and hold the poetic imagery suggested by the teacher, I smash myself against the mystery. And I risk injury. A small voice in me curses myself for so quickly signing that release form.
I’m gonna butcher this, this Dave history, this imagined and applied self deception, but you get to read the bullshit and believe it. For it is true because I make it so. Where I lack the information, I become magician. I conjure. I butoh.
Butoh, the form, arose in Japan, in the body of the human creatures there, in the late 1950’s. My limited study of the subject has me feeling quite American and even, political, as I create the story and reimagine it for you—a story derived from short-term study over-layed with ignorant enthusiasm. Butoh arose as a energetic response to the rigid and formal strictures of traditional Japanese theatrical practice and form: formal theatrical practices such as Kabuki Theater and Noh Theater. Butoh blasted away at these traditions. Butoh reclaimed the horror of the unaddressed and sublimated trauma from the nuclear devastation visited upon the island and people of Japan. It was the body, expressed in its raw and splendid imperfection.
Of course there were the progenitors, Kazuoh Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, but I will fuck that completely up if I try. The point is, this dance, this form, this spontaneous, energetic, embodied practice of abandoning habit and conditioning arose out the radiated ashes still inhaled by the people of Japan to this day. Butoh arose. It birthed itself, to become the child, the wandering child, the broadcast of impulse, defying the ordinary. I’ve read that it is referred to as the “dance of darkness” but in truth, to butoh is to defy classification. “Performers” often Butoh without audience, in a trash pile, or maybe a fern covered floor of a forest, or inside a dumpster—the energetic connection only with the practitioner, to learn, explore and discover the buried terror of uninhibited instinct.
Performers who hold to the form, either to honor the beginnings or to hang on to some semblance of rigidity, often costume in very little clothing, a loin covering or such, their skin covered in white ash. Extreme emotional states, agitation, grotesque and contorted body position, shaking, vocalization, pain, wincing and delicate, slow, melodic beauty, petals of a flower, wings of a butterfly, to butoh is to embrace and embody all that is human and all that is inhuman. To butoh is to move deeply beyond the confines of cultural habit and conditioning, to embody the energetic impulse of creative, spontaneous life—across all cultures, traditions and ethnic blendings, to butoh is to get under it and over it. What are you, reader, waiting for?
As the teacher speaks, his voice becomes the voice of my ancestors. His voice becomes the practice. He exemplifies the diaspora of the butoh impulse. In this workshop the teacher is bringing his butoh to us, the participants. His butoh, like the melting pot of America, unassimilated, his butoh is a mixture of the shamanic rituals and traditions of native Mexico, decades of study in dance and theater, and deep practice with one of the two instigators of butoh, Kazuoh Ohno. The timbre of the teacher’s voice, the cadence of his speech, coaching us, imploring us, betrays the ancient maturity of his opening.
In one poetic image suggested by the teacher, I express my father on the left side of my body and my mother on the right. I feel the tension between the two, the lovely, angry and bitter tension that belied their 64 years of marriage. I live the worry between the two, the division of labor that typified their union, where one embodied the traditionally masculine, the provider, the decider. And the other, generous, the home maker, the cook, the soft one. As I continue to express these two through the anxious digits of my hand, I make a guess at the weight of my mother’s oppression, at her angry jaw underneath the soft smile, but my body, weighted as it is, leans over toward the masculine. Typing a message with my left hand to my dead father I ask him these questions: “What was your secret?” “What was your dream” “What was your secret dream.” As the questions arise from my mind, now overwhelmed by the raw physicality of constant motion, asymmetric spasms of involuntary impulses, labored breath and fatigued legs, sweat jumping off the tip of my nose– I come to a place that is a most vast expanse—the unknown, the void, the abyss of self. I come to know my father and what my inheritance is. The story and the chatter of the surface life I lived under his roof opens up to the energetic reality of my father. To his aspiration, his love, his dream. His pain.
Everyday as a kid under his roof I never forgot his sadness for better days gone by. Sadness for the futility of life. Sadness disguised as rage, broadly applied. That rage filled sadness lived in my dad’s body like a worried knot. The constriction of his arms and legs, always crossed or covering his heart, the square set of his jaw and the feral gaze that rarely loosened. As he would say about anger, “it is honest.” And that honesty always loosened the limbs and softened his jowls, particularly after an aerobic rage. Often I was the recipient of his expression, somehow understanding my part in receiving it, not to take it personal. To cut off myself from myself. To absorb in my body the energy displacement. He would soften with alcohol and spent rage followed by a retinue of “sorry, tiger’s.” He would say it to make it alright. To amend. To atone.
And always, the shallow gratitude for the bombs.
A secret I discover is the gift of his life. His reality was severely impacted by his World War II service, where his survival, according to his story and trajectory, was intertwined with the bombing of Japan. “Thank god for the atom bomb,” was often delivered with slurred speech, my dad imploring with his eyes as if searching for someone in a crowd. Indeed, he was a hard man, softened with alcohol and when under the booze, out of his unclenched jaw came the monologue. Nostalgia. Geisha girls and Glen Miller. And always Frank Sinatra: Frank’s failure to pass the draft review, allowing him to fuck and fuck over every fighting GI, to fuck their wives, girlfriends and sisters with his entitled and syrupy voice. And the repetitive description of my dad’s buddy Fitz or Bill Lolly. And the pictures of my dad, Hollywood handsome, playing in the snow with the most delicate of women. Others, his eyes shining, at a table, clearly lit up with sake, in his dress greens. And more.
My dad was in the Pacific Theater during the war and the capitulation of Japan, their surrender, took him out of the imminent land invasion of the island. He instead, became an occupier, a participant in the defeat of a people: my father as witness to his own life unfolding, his gratitude for the atom bomb, the delicate and profound wound of a people subsumed by a larger power system, the cherry blossom cloud of atomic detonation. And the ash. The ash of spiritual poverty.
I feel the whisper of his life gracing my skin and unlock in my sternum. I sense the underneath of him, the body free of constriction, the jaw unclenched, his voice full and uncontrived. I dance his dream, the unexpressed dream of my dad—I dance for him, where he could not. I unravel the knot. The braided cords of my sinews and the inherited, transmitted energy shakes loose. It is here that he lives in me and I see the opportunity to transform him and all past generations—to lean into the abyss. How long have I danced around this place, and now, I am here.
I spent fifty of my years running away from myself, borrowing against my physicality, burning my skin, toxifying my liver, mutilating my fingers as I played catch up with power tools, swallowing pills and alcohol, putting needles in my veins and jerking my erection to extract some bit of joy, over and over and over, for years and years. And I did it all to escape myself. To escape to the next thing, always ahead of the moment where my body breathed. I borrowed against my body, trying to catch up to the speed of life.
At this moment, as I write, I am located. In the process of imagining– this dance or dream or whatever,–what was my former enemy has become my friend, my body. I am an inhabitant of this divine vehicle, for the first time in the history of this body. We are aligned. No longer dislocated, my identity, self and body are more integrated than ever.
The teacher continues…, “Tighten, close, cover yourself and your shame, you are small and invisible, disappear before us in your shame. ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, don’t look at me,’” was the instruction to collapse in on our secret shame as children, convince ourselves of our inherent un-loveable-ness. As I brought myself in and tightened around the instructions I felt a lump of pain and hot bitter throaty tears rise up and escape my lips… I was again, little and neglected, forgotten in the present moment of my upbringing. A secret shame blossomed in my body, invited by the teacher, I became a weak, dependent boy convinced of my inherent unworthiness. An image arises of me, viewed in third person, I am sitting before my first grade teacher, Ms. Whitehouse, as she reads to us, sitting on the floor. I position myself so that I can catch a glimpse up her blue polyester dress, up the channel of her legs toward a mystery. The next image of myself, a lonely orphan, dapper in a brown corduroy coat, under the pregnant rain clouds in the playground of first grade. I clutch a stick and pull my hand back in the coat, as if the stick was my prosthetic wand. And I chase a girl with the stick, grunting like a little animal. This was our game. And how do I, today, chase that girl with a wand, what game do I play? And how do I still strive to catch a glimpse of the mystery? Like my tears forming at the corner of my eyes, swelling in size until they drop, as I move with the group, as I imagine, I give birth to that boy, I allow him to escape from my guts, to rise, embraced by my grown up self.
Again, the teacher, “Now! , ok, ok, now, bring yourself forward, uncover, uncover, gently, gently, open, open, now bring yourself open, put yourself in the posture of joy and possibility, live in that place, breath into it and expand, expand. Grow out, hold the future, the impossible joy of everything. Grow with it, let it become.” And I become. I go back to the beach in Guam, 1985, in the army and off duty. I’m there for a Joint Special Operations Training exercise, big words for a blindingly surreal experience of a simulated gun battle. I’m just an island over from Tinian, where the “big boy” was loaded into the belly of the Enola Gay, its next destination, birth of the nuclear age over Hiroshima. I’m on the beach wearing nothing but a thin pair of surf trunks, the sand so lovingly burning my feet, standing before the waves…. and the sun loves me like no mother ever could– at that moment all fear abandoned me. I enlarge, my chest cracking open, arms spread, palms upturned toward the sky, I invite the sun to enter my heart and I feel my joy, the limitless potential, the electric truth and conviction to crack open the sky. I become it. I touch it. I know it. My body sings.
“Now, bring yourself back. Come to neutral; come to the neutral place where both the shame and joy are together, but with neutral expression. Hold these two places, hold them and let them connect.” And I integrate. I lower my muscles in my face, let the mask slip into a benign steadiness. I breathe. I calm. My body lines up with the two realities and settles. I allow myself to open and feel the thrum of my hard beating heart in my chest, excruciating and tender, the experience that pain and joy are of the same source. I open. My body aroused from a new sprint, a new adventure, running toward myself. Sweat pours down my skin, my hips are loose, my sternum soft, my mouth open. I look out of my eyes and I see the group, an extension of me, breathing with me. I whisper to myself, just under my exasperated breath…“what’s next?”