Costume & Lack Thereof (Updated: 08/19/20)

“The dancer’s costume is to wear the universe.” – Kazuo Ohno

Body Paint

Shironuri is the Japanese term for painting the body white. Tamano Hiroko once said regarding white body paint, “It’s erasing myself. It’s not painting.¹ To Katja Centonze, it can also reflect a stage of death, Pallor mortis, which is also associated with a white color.² Though white is a commonly portrayed color in butoh (for costume and skin color), any color or lack thereof may be used.

Julie Becton Gillum has noted that the painting of the body before the performance was the beginning of the ceremony, part of a ritual.*

In Tatsumi Hijikata’s earlier pieces (1957 to 1961) such as Forbidden Colors, black was actually the color of choice for the body.4

The first use of white was from an experiment entitled Mid-afternoon Secret Ceremony of a Hermaphrodite (1962), which consisted of being slathered with white plaster. Then the white body butoh motif was born.5

There are various types of body paint on the market. It is recommended to look at the ingredients because some paints may not be good for the skin. A healthy alternative to white paint can be Kaolin Clay, and some forms of porcelain clay have been reported to work.

Mud has often been used and is great for the skin. Ash can be used only if the the content of the ash is known not be toxic. Sadhus in India have worn ash for ages.


Some productions make great use of costumes, some more elaborate than others, while others are more stripped down, reminiscent of Jerzy Grotowski’s ideal of body focus alone or minimalism.³ Rhizome Lee’s Infectuous Fever piece was completely naked and without body color.

One can get extraordinarily creative with costumes by using everyday objects or junk. Paper (e.g. newspaper), plastic, string, and tape can go a long way.

An important note about the costume (or mask) is that we shall consider not relying on them 100% for expression or embodiment, unless we have already embodied the qualia within ourselves. This is the same case with expression of emotion. The real dancer underneath is not to be lost.

Deterritorialized Costume

To take an extreme deterritorialized example, we see Ohno’s quote at the beginning of this page about the whole universe being the costume.

But there are many ways to reevaluate the costume. Take for instance nudity obscured by the limbs. One could say the body has taken on a new costume (using its own body). If we use a curtain in our dance, the curtain could also become a costume. Another human could become our costume.


¹ Calamoneri, Tanya. Becoming Nothing to Become Something: Methods of Performer Training in Hijikata Tatsumi’s Buto Dance. PhD dissertation. Page 97.
² Centonze, Katja. Hijikata Tatsumi’s Sabotage of Movemetn and the Desire to Kill the Ideology of Death. Death and Desire in Contemporary Japan: Representing,Practicing, Performing. Universitat Trier, Detschland; Waseda University, Japan. 2017. Page 214.
³ Armitsu, Michio, From Voodoo to Butoh. MOMA. 2014.
4 Grotowski, Jerzy, Eugenio Barba, and Peter Brook. Towards a Poor Theatre. , 1975. Print.
5 Baird, Bruce, and Rosemary Candelario, eds. The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. Page 3.
* Stated in person at Julie’s residence, Anderson, NC, May 19, 2020.