Audience & Show (Updated: 09/29/18)

“Butoh works on a very poetic, visceral and emotional level with its audience. You can experience something very directly from Butoh, though you might not be able to clearly define it in words.” – Frances Barbe¹


For there to be an audience, there has to be at least one observer, and their place is a strange one as Peter Brook mentions: “It is hard to understand the true notion of the spectator, there and not there, ignored and yet needed.”²

The audience placement can take on several forms, e.g.: (1) from a side; (2) surrounding the performer; (3) at the center of the performance; (4) made to follow the performer to another space. Rhizome Lee’s concept of the nomadic rhizome is one example of number 4. In the nomadic rhizome, the audience is made to literally travel with the performers on a journey of endlessly differentiating spaces. By proxy, this gives the performance a strong audience participation aspect.

It is not, however ,essential to satisfy the audience, but it is to leave a powerful impression. As Artaud put it, “We are not appealing to the audience’s minds or senses, but to their whole existence.”³ It is also not essential to lay out specific meaning or story for the audience. The most important part is to evoke feeling, not an intellectual response. Kazuo Ohno explains: “The audience can be moved without having to comprehend all that goes into making your performance. Isn’t that the very reason we dance – to engage the audience on a visceral level? That is why I’m at a terrible loss to hear people talk of understanding my performance. Of course, you can use your brains to think, but when it comes to dancing, just forget all that.”4

Because humans are generally not satisfied with the ambiguous, they often try to impose labels upon it with that of the familiar. So if for instance somebody has never seen or known of Sea lions, and then witnesses one, the witness may be inclined to call it a water dog, mermaid dog, or merdog, possibly neglecting the uniqueness (or third category) of the phenomenon. Geoffrey Harpham calls these inaccurate labels storage spaces for non-things.5 A similar situation often occurs when somebody witnesses Butoh for the first time. Having never seen such a phenomenon, the witness may feel it is a form or corruption of mime, dance, theater, and/or performance art, but Butoh stands alone.

So when watching a Butoh performance: (1) quiet the mind; (2) be open; (3) feel.

Exercise 1: Waking the Ash Man

This is an exercise that deeply ties the performer to the audience. Beforehand, the audience is to make noise and/or movement of any kind. The audience is a direct influence on the dancer who wakes up from ash body (resonates) when there is audience participation.

Exercise 2: Entering/Exiting

This is an exercise in finding as many varying ways to enter and exit a stage/space. Oftentimes, the interesting endings or beginnings are neglected. Essentially, this is cultivating good Jos and Kyus of Jo-Ha-Kyus. Consider also that when one enters or exits the space, the audience is to believe that the activity was already going on before you went on stage and will still go on after one has left.

Show Space

Butoh deterritorializes the idea of stage where a stage can transform to any space (man-made or natural), large, small, and unfixed. Performance on the street, inside living quarters, or commercial zones are possible. Butoh can resonate quite well with Grotowski’s idea of the poor theater, which is a form of stripped theater that does not rely on lavish costumes or sets, but the actor alone. Grotowski avoided the traditional theater stage and preferred nontraditional spaces such as buildings or rooms.6

Beyond Human Observers

Going by Rhizome Lee’s interpretation of Hijikata’s goals in butoh (see here), we can extend the limitations of audience by incorporating beyond human. Early dance throughout the ages was often a ritual for spirits or gods. Can we make, again, the spirits or gods the audience? And may I dare say a Butoh performer has a special guest in the audience who goes by Monad, Source, or The Great Personality?

A deterritorialized audience is one that is not human.


¹ Barbe, Frances. The Way of Butoh and Contemporary Choreography: Reflective. Writing on Choreographic Research. n.d. Web. 20 April 2010.
² Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York :Atheneum, 1968. Print. Page 61.
³ Artaud, Antonin. Artaud on Theatre. Edited with commentary by Claude Schumacher. 1989. Page xxxiii.
4 Ohno, K. (1 997b), Workshop Words (Keiko no Kotoba), Tokyo: Shichou Sha. (Japanese Edition).
5 Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 6.
6 Poor Theatre Conventions. The Drama Teacher.