Audience & Show (Updated: 09/27/19)

“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.

One can even play around with the amount of audience, such as having a one-on-one performance (one person at a time.)

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

Show Time

The length of time in a performance is broken up into 3 from the performance theorist Richard Schechner: (1) Event time; (2) Set time; (3) Symbolic time. Butoh can play around with any of these.

Event time, when the activity itself has a set sequence and all the steps of that sequence must be completed no matter how long (or short) the elapsed clock time. Examples: baseball, racing, hopscotch; rituals where a “response” or a “state” is sought, such as rain dances, shamanic cures, revival meetings; scripted theatrical performances taken as a whole.

Set time, where an arbitrary time pattern is imposed on events—they begin and end at certain moments whether or not they have been “completed.” Here there is an agonistic contest between the activity and the clock. Examples: football, basketball, games structured on “how many” or “how much” can you do in x time.

Symbolic time, when the span of the activity represents another (longer or shorter) span of clock time. Or where time is considered differently, as in Christian notions of “the end of time,” the Aborigine “dreamtime,” or Zen’s goal of the “ever present.” Examples: theater, rituals that reactualize events or abolish time, make- believe play and games.7

In performance art, anything that focuses on a long passage of time (such as 3 hours or more) is called a durational piece.8

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?

Deterritorialized Audience

A deterritorialized audience is one that breaks the bounds of what typically would be known as audience. In performance art, for instance, when there is audience interaction, the audience has stepped outside of the bounds of mere observer and mixed with performer. In this way, they could be called perforbserver or spectactor.

A good performer is aware of the audience, and if this is so, has not that performer then also become the spectator of the spectator?

In the butoh jam phenomena, we may really see an audience/performer integration take place. The audience at any moment may join and what would have been seen as performance may the next minute be spectatorship.

What entails audience can also be taken beyond human such as animals,  ourselves (such as in the mirror), or as even abstract as spirits or  God(s), which expresses the performativity/theater within Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion).


Please do not touch audience members without their consent. As Lauren Wingenroth says, “[T]heaters should be spaces where people of all physical abilities and backgrounds can feel safe and respected.”9


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.
7 Schechner, Richard, and Richard Schechner. Performance Theory. , 1988. Print. Page 6.
8 Paul Allain, Jen Harvie, The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance, Routledge, 2014, p. 221.
9 Wingenroth, Lauren. We Need To Talk About Non-consensual Audience Participation. Dance Magazine. Oct 12. 2018.