“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
It is not 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.
The relationship to the audience can range from completely disconnected (very internally focused) to completely engaged by them (as with clown). If disconnected, then presence is even more vital. You can also play around with a gradient system that transitions between more or less audience connections:
Exercise: 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.
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?