Ma & Void (Updated: 05/21/18)

“I don’t dance in the place, but I am the place.” – Min Tanaka¹

Ma is a Japanese term that means “in the gaps and intervals of time, space and being.” The term is used in endless ways.² As artists, it’s recommended to think in terms of space.

The subbody and ma as a whole appear to be in a deep symbiotic relationship. If the subbody is associated with a rhizomic multi-dimensional world, then ma is its container, ground, and/or vehicle.

Creating space, emptying, and quieting are also regarded as the initial conditions needed for creation in butoh and anything in general.


“Physical appearance, activities, and meanings are the raw material of the identity of places.” – Ralph Edwards³

Any place, set, or setting is fair game in Butoh, whether inside a box, or street. The space can even be imaginary and/or pyschological (e.g. bad ma ≈ bad vibes). Within the place, we have space. As Peter Brooks notes, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, an this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”5

Not only is the term ma used for a walled room, but also for the space between the walls.7

Deleuze and Guattari’s use of haecceity encompasses a segment of experience where the place/set/setting is not separate from the self: “Climate, wind, season, hour are not of another nature than the things, animals , or people that populate them, [but] follow them, sleep and awaken within them. This should be read without a pause: the-animal-stalks-at-five-o’clock. The becoming-evening, becoming-night of an animal, blood nuptials. Five o’clock is this animal! This animal is this place!”8

Exercise 1: Child Vision

Look around the entire space as if for the first time. Have child vision. Do not judge or compare, only notice.

Exercise 2: Space Infiltration

Within a certain time limit (1 minute, 20 seconds, 10 seconds, etc.), the participants are to touch/steal as much space as possible. Resonate with how sporadically the body may transform in result.


As a whole, space can be thought of as: (1) yang (positive); (2) yin (negative); (3) yin-yang (neutral/beyond).

Positive space is associated with the doer, performer, ego, and/or “my person.” This is the natural state we might find ourselves in. The performer uses positive space when they want to feel that they are doing the moving.

Negative space, on the other hand, is associated with someone or something outside of oneself. When utilising negative space, the performer is being moved by someone or something. There is little or no ego involved and there is a general openness or innocence. This being moved by space itself is also the main concept behind Akaji Maro’s Chūtai (Space-Body).

Neutral space is associated with both positive and negative or beyond. In neutral space, the performer touches the negative space with positive space. Neutral space may also be associated with the origin, the source, death, or the unborn.

Exercise: Single String Puppet

To shift focus from utilizing positive space to utilizing negative space, attach an imaginary string to any part of your body and move as if it were pulling you. We will be working with the concept of the string further in the text.


There are high, middle and low levels of space. Maximum high level takes place physically on the balls of the feet or visually in the sky. Maximum low level takes place physically as a body flat on the ground or visually down to the core of the earth.

Exercise: Laser Chaser

Like a cat who chases a laser, chase the laser at ground level, but also at the varying levels against the wall.

Hover (A Low Level Movement)

The hover is a low level movement (though can also take place along a wall) with the focus being a constant hover one inch from the ground by as many parts of the body as possible.

Exercise 1: Back Body Hover

On your back, engage core by gluing the lower spine to the floor. Now, hover dance each of the limbs from the floor one inch off the ground.

Exercise 2: Belly Hover

On your belly, hover dance all the limbs one inch off the ground, and even the shoulders and thighs if possible.

Floor Resonance & Suction (A Low Level Movement)

Floor Resonance in Belgrade, Serbia

Try building a relationship with the floor. The floor is your friend.

Exercise 1: Suction

The participant move with as much surface of the body suctioned to the ground or wall as possible. One can also imagine a high gravity or centrifugal force situation.

Exercise 2: Suction with Partner

We might not be aware how much more body surface we can touch to either the ground or wall, so a partner will see any gaps and gently push any of these areas, whether with the hands or other parts of the body.


The performer can resonate within any space, whether it is a big gymnasium or a small suit case, e.g. Hijikata’s boxed body from his Quiet House butoh-fu.4 The participant can also space-bend a fixed space. See the following exercse.

Exercise: Space Stretching

Take 5 seconds to get from one side of a space to another. Then go back toward the other side but only half way for another 5 seconds. Then go back with yet another half for 5 more seconds. Continue this until the space is stretched so thin, you appear to be nearly frozen. Try to keep the time it gets from getting from one space to the other uniform. After you have become proficient in this, then you can stylize the timings like with crescendos, etc.

Direction & Pathway

Directions go right, left, up, down, forward, backward, and inbetween all of these. These directions can be initiated from any part of the body. When the direction is connected to locomotion, we have a pathway, which can go straight, in a curve, zigzag or a mixture of any.

Exercise: Breath Across Space aka Lunging

The participant goes across the space on inspiration and backwards upon expiration. Work with different speeds connected to breath. You can also do the same along the walls in the room, returning back to where you began. We will be working more with breath further in the text.


To get an idea of relationship, think of prepositions. Here is a list: aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, amid, among, anti, around, as,at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, opposite, outside, over, past, round, through, to, toward, under, up, upon, with, within, without.

Relationship is one form that ma is used. Günter Nitschke expresses the idea: “Even in a simple one-dimensional use, the character ma exhibits its peculiar ambivalence, signifying both ‘distance’ or ‘interstice’ and ‘relatedness’ or ‘polarity.’5

Exercise: Prop Relationship

Plug in the prepositions with any prop, e.g. chair or scarf.

Merging with the Space

The following is a space resonance exercise documented by P. Liao during a Hokutobo Butoh Dance Company workshop in Taiwan, 1996. This concept is also the bases of Akaji Maro’s Chūtai (Space-Body).

Stand in a corner of a space. Observe and feel the space. Try to move the body. Find the gesture/posture that is felt to best correspond to the space. In other words the bodily gesture/posture should best represent the sensations given by the space, such as its length, width, and depth, whether it is spacious or crowded, bright or dark, warm or cold, the air flow if any, the texture of the wall…

Stand further away from the corner. Repeat the previous sequence until a new gesture/posture has been found. Change the standing locus for a third time. Repeat the same sequence.

Compare the bodily gestures/postures obtained in the three loci. Examine and feel how they link to the whole space and are influenced by the change of loci. Develop a sequence of bodily movement, moving from the first locus, through the second, to the third locus.

The bodily gesture/posture in each locus should keep corresponding to the space, and the transition from one bodily gesture/posture to another should also keep corresponding to the space.6

 The Void

“Nothing can be stated about the ‘void.’ It is impossible even to think about it. Nevertheless, enlightened ones […] have created many devices with which they have tried to lure their disciples into a state of being in which the above phrase does make sense.” – Gunther Nitschke5

This is the archypal hostile space/ma. It is often the censored block itself to past hardships or traumas. In the subbody or shadowbody, we can attempt to find an edge or bottom body for shadow work. For those into digging and digging to find the ultimate primordial “thing” or No-Thing, The Void or Abyss might eventually rear her head. This territory has been seen as the most terrifying place in existence, possibly even more so than the Spanish Inquisition. It has even been known as Enlightnment’s Evil Twin.

Yet, this attitude of fear is only adopted by those who resist this space/ma. The sign before the entrance to Dante’s Inferno read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” But the key is in interpretation. Abandon hope by surrendering, else resistance will be the true hell.

For those who have reached this edge of all edges, they may have in result gotten to step into the kingdom of kingdoms, The Void’s “opposite” associated with maximum meaning and value. This happens because The Void may imply its opposite. If The Void is the serpent’s ferocious mouth (the end of everything) then its opposite is the beginning of everything—the Tail or Tale (story/Jo-Ha-Kyu). Life is a story, a theater. For this reason, shadowbody butoh is about life resonance.

When we dance butoh, we dance life. If we go to The Void, it’s in order to kiss the immortal flower that grows from it. It may be one entity, the ouroboros.

The Ouroboros

The ouroboros may be the ma of mas. The ouroboros is the serpent that bites its own tail. This shows a prolific, powerful image of primordial nature, lying at the heart of all that we are and do. All appears to possess a type of feedback loop. This can be visualized by pondering over the notion of memory with its endless loopy associations of past, which are but endless copies fed into itself. One cannot say that the past or future exist identically as the present, unless one steps radically inward or outward to visualize a notion of transcending space/time itself, hence theoretically making all exist equally to each other. Yet, who can ever say this is also not space/ma?

For a century, Quantum Physics attempted to dive into smaller and smaller bits of substance, attempting to find the most primordial substance of all, only to find itself biting its own tail like the ouroboros. They noticed the act of observation completely modified or undermined their own experiments. This appears to make the primordial more mysterious than it was in the first place.


“‘Time’ is expressed in Japanese as ‘space in flow,’ making time a dimension of space.” – Gunther Nitschke5

Time comes from space. This manual breaks time into two types, artificial and natural.

Artificial time is the time of the modern world and bears a duplicity illusion. My conjecture is that nothing can be precisely duplicated. Even Aristotle’s Law of Noncontradiction principle of A = A may not take into account time. The first A and the second A exist in different space-times. Though Aristotle may be referring to the original A, there may be something lost in the process. So artificial time has the following characteristics: (1) Illusion; (2) Rhythm; (3) Meter; (4) Lag.

Natural time or butoh time on the other hand has no rhythm. Think of the flight of a butterfly. Does the butterfly dance in a specific time like a ballet dancer? Is the butterfly counting? Butoh time has the following characteristics: (1) Lack of rhythm; (2) Nowness; (3) Immediacy; (4) Newness; (5) Chaos.

Even though I have classified here two different times, at the end of the day, I feel there is always only one time, and that is Butoh Time. The so-called artificial time just appears to not be in harmony with nature, but is automatically in harmony with nature. We may just not be able to see it. If anybody were to zoom into any rhythm (e.g. a heart rhythm), one would find that there is not one identical wave function. Butoh just blows up this concept to make it more obvious.


¹ Viala, Jean, and Nourit Masson-Sekine. 1988. Butoh: Shades of Darkness. Japan: Shofunotomo.
² Pilgrim, R. B. (1986). Intervals (“ma”) in space and time: Foundations for a religioaesthetic
paradigm in Japan. History of Religions, 25(3), 255–277
³ Ralph, Edward, Place and Placelessness, Pion Ltd, London, 1976.
4 Lee, Rhizome. Behind the Mirror: Butoh Manual For Students. Print.
5 Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York :Atheneum, 1968. Print. Page 7.
Liao, P. An Inquiry into the Creative Process of Butoh. City University London. 2006. page 56. Print.
7 Nitschke, Günter. Ma, Place, Space, Void. 1993.
8 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. P. 263. Print.