Performance and Protest: From Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner to Kazuo Ohno

In Amsterdam – considered the nexus for contemporary dance in the early 1970s – their White Dance performances soon became must-see events on the experimental scene. In 1976, Eiko & Koma travelled via San Francisco to New York, where they live and work to this very day. As an artistic duo, their highly individual way of dealing with a tranche of history that radically destroyed people involves expanding choreographic space into churches, museums, galleries, public parks, squares and the outdoors. With the title “Time is not Even, Space is not Empty,” the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis dedicated a large-scale retrospective to the pair in 2011. One of their most seminal works was the outdoor performance Event Fission (1980) where they danced with a billowing flag on top of an artificial sand dune at the Battery Park landfill in the shadow of the Twin Towers: “We offered a white flag, not a national flag.”

Dance enables us to sensorially experience how artistic globalisation processes and transcultural thinking have invariably been the norm. In 2021, at Essen’s Folkwang Museum, Marietta Piekenbrock, curator of the exceptional exhibition Global Groove. Dance, Art, Performance and Protest, in conjunction with Brygida Ochaim, went in search of concrete manifestations of such encounters between Western and Oriental avant-gardes. Who were ––and continue to be––the essentially transnational ambassadors at the dawn of the 20th century? Beginning with Mary Wigman and Kazuo Ohno in the past, to Boris Charmatz and the artist duo Eiko & Koma in the present, these Western and Japanese protagonists were and remain instrumental in a cross-cultural differentiation of modernism and postmodernism.

Kuratorin und Autorin

It has become evident how inconceivable it is to consider the early avant-garde without a revolution that was reflected throughout Europe through an urgent desire for another kind of body image. This Other was inspired by foreign cultures, by imaginings of antiquity, as well as by so-called ethnological shows and world exhibitions. Consequently, the 20th century saw – on an artistic level – intense cultural exchanges, notably between Asia and Europe, despite the fact that two world wars attempted to stifle such exchanges taking place.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Self-Portrait as a Soldier in the Studio Berlin Friedenau, Körnerstr 45, 1915 Kirchner Museum Davos, detail

Shackled by the prevailing High Imperialism mindset and the resultant male role models, Kirchner found himself in a permanent state of conflict with his own social standing and sense of Otherness. He alienated himself – his studio’s camouflage and the theatricalisation of his outsiderness formed part of his psychological survival strategy. From the standpoint of the colonised, oppressed body, his own self merged with the coveted Other. For Kirchner, a Black naked body represented Eros, freedom, and self-determination. Their appearance seem at once a counter-image and an ideal, an anti-costume to Kirchner’s subsequent soldier’s uniform, whose size and severity he had to fear as early as 1911.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Negertanz/Negro Dancers, 1911

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Frauenbildnis /Portrait of a Woman, 1911

Ultimately, the war led to Kirchner suffering a breakdown. In Negro Dancers (1911), the painter himself sets the scene for this dialectical double moment of public exposure and a promise of a cure. His collage-like use of codes and costumes is striking. He highlights the dark-skinned dancing couple, dressing them in potpourri costumes with elements from Western dance and vaudeville culture. They dance in pointed shoes and tight leotards; the male figure dons a white tulle skirt while his female partner wears a strapless, knee-length flouncy dress.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Schlafende Milli/Sleeping Milli, 1991, Kunstverein Bremen

Kirchner was clearly not concerned with imitating a real, authentic Other, but rather with rendering visible cultural transfer and adaptation processes. His creative outburst wasn’t about hierarchy, but rather interconnectedness. It remains an open question whether Sleeping Milli (1911) actually reflects the painter’s exoticising gaze. Or whether Kirchner avails of the pictorial scale and setting – he positions the fair-skinned and somewhat diminutive dancing figure in the background, while he renders a person of colour, here in the guise of the reclining Milli as the painting’s radiant protagonist – to bring something completely different to dance, namely, the idea of white dominance culture. He has transformed the Black maid-in-waiting in Édouard Manet’s Olympia into a mistress. The Berlin exhibition misses out on an important opportunity, namely, to demonstrate just to what extent cultural encounters and the experience of foreignness were potentially progressive forces and represented a charismatic creative core for the KG Brücke. Neither Sleeping Milli nor Negro Dancers feature at the exhibition.

Emil Nolde, Meerbucht/ Sea Bay, 1914, © Nolde Foundation Seebüll

The intensity of Brücke art is closely linked with its capacity to collate disparate elements. This intermixing and amalgamation is part and parcel of the essence of this group’s re-definition of art on the eve of the First World War. The life stories, driving energies and trajectory of artists the likes of Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel and the later reactionary Emil Nolde, steer us toward that phase of modernity where things begin to change: gestures, gender relations, forms of domination, our relationship to our bodies, to other cultures, as well as to nature itself and to technology. Their curiosity for the still unfamiliar non-European modes of cultural expression, their re-invention of form paved the way for crucial advances in artistic freedom. Thanks to their appropriation and patchwork approach at the outset of the 20tth century, the Brücke expressionists decisively influenced and revolutionised the Western artistic canon and its idea of beauty. Like an early warning system for the practices of global art production, these artists juggled with Eurocentric perspectives in their studios and on their travels, demonstrating the sweeping influence that quotations, clichés, stereotypes and superficial knowledge, appropriation and overlaying have continually had upon creativity right down to the present day.

A body of work such as Kirchner’s raises awareness in an almost exemplary way about the loop-like exchange of hitherto unknown abstract forms between Europe, Africa, Asia and the USA, which– increasingly inseparable – began to interweave and intertwine. Through the history of Ausdruckstanz, Kirchner’s affinity with dance reveals to us the extent to which innovative, alternative manifestations in art emerge from transcultural encounters and relationships. Doesn’t the dancer embody the desire for the Other? Their archetype, their sense of community play a seminal role in societies’ social and political development.

In Germany, it was the dancer and choreographer Mary Wigman (1886-1973) who first introduced her audience and students to a different kind of modernity. For her, choreography involved converting the margins of the psyche into visibly abstract forms and sequences of geometric movements. The modern dance school she founded in Dresden in 1920 was ultimately to become a black box of modernity.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wigman Dance Group, coloured chalk, circa 1926, © Galerie Henze&Ketterer

Countless intellectuals and personalities from the visual arts, the dance and musical spheres with a specific sense for the situational came together in Dresden during those post-war years. With the war no longer raging, those who at that juncture had discovered the new European or cosmopolitan in themselves must have sensed that dynamic – among them were the Dresden portrait photographer Hugo Erfurt, his student, the dance photographer Charlotte Rudolph, the photojournalist Umbo and, of course, the aforementioned painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore also visited Dresden, while the Indian dancer Uday Shankar (1900-1977) took an interest in Wigman’s training techniques.

Uday Shankar Bimol, Mukerji, 1936

Alvin Langdon Coburn: Japanese dancer Michio Ito rehearsing “the Hawk” in William Butler Yeats’ half-Celtic, half-Japanese Noh play: At the Hawk’s Well, 1916, src Columbia University , New York

The Japanese dancer and choreographer Michio Ito, who had attended the Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s reform educational institute for eurythmics in Hellerau close to Dresden for two years, also introduced Wigman’s choreographic heritage to Japan.

With the imminent outbreak of World War I, Ito fled to London a week before Japan occupied the German colonial concession of Kiautschou and entered the war against Germany in 1914. He soon became acquainted with the artistic circle around William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound and thanks to his cosmopolitan network he crossed over to the United States. Ito greatly contributed to placing Dresden and Wigman’s names on the cultural map of the world.

Nobody could ignore Mary Wigman. In her presence, everyone became a chronicler of a fascination emanating from her choreographies’ innovative symbolic language and her emancipated image of women. As a dancer who choreographed, she manoeuvred her entire milieu onto the socially and medially still largely undefined terrain of the internationally networked and successful “new woman.”

In January 1926, Kirchner crossed the Swiss border into post-war Germany for the first time in almost a decade when he travelled to Dresden to work on a monograph with the young art critic Will Grohmann. Actually, it was Grohmann who introduced Kirchner to Wigman. During Kirchner’s sojourn in Dresden, Wigman’s unusual inventions in dance movements were to become a pivotal, long-awaited visual experience for him. Whether at the circus, in a theatrical setting, or watching dancers on Wigman’s studio stage, he was hooked on movement: gestures, steps, leaps, extreme states of trance and ecstasy: his sketchbooks, drawing pads and notes document just how closely the intensity of modernism is linked to dance themes.

“Today initial impression of Mary Wigman. […] It is infinitely stimulating and delightful to draw these physical movements. I’m going to paint great pictures of them. Yes, what we had anticipated has become reality. The new art has arrived. M. W. unconsciously uses a lot from modern painting, and the creation of a modern concept of beauty is equally as present in her dances as in my paintings […].” On 24 January 1926, Kirchner attended her rehearsals for the first time. He discerned marked parallels between Wigman’s dance, her reformist educational ideas, and the work of the Brücke artists.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Mary Wigman, print Folkwang, Museum

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Mary Wigman’s Totentanz/Dance of Death © Galerie Henze&Ketterer

Wigman was pegging away at her group choreography Totentanz II during Kirchner’s visit to Dresden. Death and lamenting the dead were the defining motifs of her work during those years. She was later to note: “The graves open up and release their dead […].” Instead of shielding herself from the past’s extended shadows, Wigman, with her sculptural groups of figures, created universally intelligible, ephemeral memorials of war: Hollow-cheeked and barefooted, her dancers in their dark costumes struck audiences as the embodiments of a collective unconscious. One of Wigman’s messages for the future was that national identity is erected upon what we choose to remember and to forget. This at once makes her an exceptional cultural figure and yet connects her with her contemporaries: “I started a painting based upon Wigman’s Totentanz” Kirchner writes. “The days I could work on my drawings there were stimulating for me, and the sympathetic figure of this woman, who also struggles for art even in brittle Germany, often hovers in my mind’s eye.”

Mary Wigman: Hexentanz/Witch Dance_Images des collections du Centre national de la danse – CND

Wigman’s experimental approach to dance masks and percussive instruments testifies to deep oriental influences – although unlike Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) or Martha Graham (1894-1991), she never set foot in Asia. As an astute observer, Wigman could readily detect parallels to her own form-reducing penetrating movements in Indian dance, which she closely adapted at her Dresden school and during her guest performance tours throughout Europe. Travelogues, her extensive Asia-oriented network, as well as her encounters with Asian artists such as the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore and the dancers Raden Mas Jodjana and Uday Shankar were ultimately to modify her physical techniques. She processed her impressions into her individual form of Orientalism, over which, in the late 1940s, she began to reflect in her sketches for a book project on the global history of dance. And like Kirchner, Wigman, too, visited the Dresden Museum of Ethnology whose ethnographic collection was co-exhibited with its zoological and anthropological collections. The museum laid particular emphasis on its “East Indian Archipelago and the South Seas” section. Retrospectively, it is difficult to determine whether the museums’ narrative thrust and contextualisations were a vital source of inspiration for artists or whether artists used the often overloaded and chaotic exhibition spaces more as a workshop for their experimental forays with form. Wigman herself was inspired by ethnographic artefacts for her solo Hexentanz/ Witch Dance II (1926), transforming herself into a jerky and stomping body that hides its face behind a mask – a highly provocative moment because it intruded with such primitive force into the Western cultural fundaments of meaning, beauty, and harmony.

Isamu Noguchi’s set design for Martha Graham’s Dark Meadow,1946

With Neuer Tanz, the so-called New German Dance, Wigman’s sculptural tableaux, poised mask dances and formal appropriations broke through to Western and, above all, Oriental audiences thanks to a series of guest performance tours, letters, photographs and her numerous international students. Kirchner’s Dresden working group also contributed to spreading Wigman’s powerful influence beyond Germany. This working group underscored the creative interplay between painting and dance and the intuitive shift to a form of expression that “[was] not recognised as high art equivalent to the likes of painting, ” but which Kirchner nonetheless aspired to raise to a similar status. [war] The prevailing transcultural modernism at Wigman’s Dresden School characterized a historical configuration which, upon closer analysis, can be less readily classified into a national cultural historiography. As with the Brücke painters’ expressionism, Neuer Tanz was a mishmash of cultural influences flourishing in the shadows of latter-day autocratic regimes. A browse through its archives reveals new genealogies and grey zones.

Just as Ausdruckstanz, the German expressionistic dance, was losing its veneer of novelty with European audiences, another form of expressionism was emerging in Japan, which subsequently became known as Ankoku Butoh – Dance of Utter Darkness––and forged new links between Japan and Europe. Encapsulating the tumult in the Japanese dance world and expressive practices worldwide, the Butoh experiment can be traced back to a charismatic primal scene in which the German expressionist dancer Harald Kreutzberg’s (1902-1968) clear sense of style played a pivotal role. Trained at Wigman’s school in Dresden, he was one of the Weimar era’s most distinctive solo performers.

Following stints in Dresden, Hanover, and with the Berlin State Opera, he first introduced Ausdruckstanz to American audiences before embarking on a worldwide tour to Hawaii, Japan, China and Russia in 1934 together with the American dancer Ruth Page. In Japan, he was to encounter an unprepared audience, for never before had a German dancer or ensemble appeared on a Japanese stage. Against the backdrop of the Japanese Imperial army’s conquest of the German colonial concession Kiautschou in 1914, which had led to persistent political tensions between both empires, Kreutzberg had to reckon with a frosty socio-political climate. Notwithstanding, he was as interested in the Japanese dance world as it was in him. Before his performances in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, he would meet with a coterie of dancers, artists, and dance critics. The Japanese leg of his world tour happened to coincide with a transitional phase during which Japanese dance was just beginning to decouple itself from traditional stylised forms such as Kabuki. At once heralded and treated as a long-awaited student of Wigman, Kreutzberg is revered and remembered for his artistry’s contrastive dual character to this very day: influenced by Neuer Tanz, his contemporaries could freshly approach that form of classical ballet that Wigman had so vehemently rejected. Combined with his outstanding technique and faultless execution, a “crazed mentality” was at work in his pieces. His perfectionism profoundly impacted Japanese audiences accustomed to strict adherence to form, notably through the power of convention. On the other hand, however, his “crazy” form of sensuality and his outright expressiveness were to deeply mark a young PE teacher in Yokohama, Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010), who subsequently went on to invent Butoh with the choreographer and dancer Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986).

Harald Kreutzberg by Siegfried Enkelmann, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Ohno attended one of Kreutzberg’s performances at the Tokyo Theatre. This experience was to radically alter his future career path; he had never before witnessed such a combination of free dance movements, pantomime, and minimalist hand play, the equivalence of beauty and ugliness. Two years later, Ohno began studying under the trailblazers of modern dance in Japan, Takaya Eguchi and Misako Miya, who had both studied under Wigman in Dresden during the early 1930s.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific War, Ohno was mobilised and deployed with the Imperial army to fight on the front in China and subsequently in New Guinea, where he was interned as a POW following Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces. After his homecoming in 1946, he soon began to transform those traumatic wartime experiences and those sights of suffering and death into an innovative form of kinetic expressionism before eventually embarking upon a series of self-produced solo modern dance performances. Hijikata came across Ohno at Eguchi’s dance studio. In 1959, they performed together in the first group show Hijikata organised at Tokyo’s Sogetsu Art Center under the title 6 Avant-garde Artists. An Experience for 650 People. In the same year, Hijikata staged what was subsequently referred to as the first-ever Butoh performance, namely the short homoerotic duo featuring Kazuo Ohno’s son Yoshito, Kinjiki [Forbidden Colors], inspired by Yukio Mishima’s eponymous novel.

Kazuo Ohno: Admiring La Argentina, photo Sachiko Kuru

Tatsumi Hijikata, Forbidden Colors, rehearsal at Asbestos-kan 1959, photograph Kiyoji Ōtsuji

Set against a soft-blue background, the Ohnos, father and son, with their oil-smeared faces, dance. Blackface was soon replaced by shironuri, the distinctive heavy white makeup performers Butoh practitioners use to “neutralise” their faces and bodies. The archaic, physical, and ritualistic qualities of Forbidden Colors and Anma /The Masseur –– ( 8mm film, Takahiko Iimura, 1963) ––struck a chord in post-war Japan. All what had been previously associated with dance was missing. For the first time ever, combinations of movements could be seen in which the human body and space itself were recalibrated through extremely decelerated shifts in the dancer’s centre of gravity. The early Butoh performances and happenings cast light on that which had never before witnessed on stage: emptiness, darkness, chaos, nakedness, age, illness, violence, pain, deformity and animal carcasses.

As symbols for the nuclear catastrophes of 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki cast long shadows over those post-war years, imparting as it were an existential momentum of grief and suffering to the restoratively experimental climate across all artistic genres.

Tatsumi Hijikata, Revolt of the Body, Hijikata wearing a golden phallus 1968, photograph Ryozen Torii

Tatsumi Hijikata, Revolt of the Body, Finale, 1968, photograph Tadao Nakatani

Tatsumi Hijikata performing the fencing sequence in Rose-Colored Dance, 1965, photograph Eikoh Hosoe

The short experimental film Heso to Genbaku/Navel and A-Bomb, 1960 co-directed by Hijikata and the photographer Eikoh Hosoe (1933-) celebrates the renaissance of a Japanese identity in stark black-and-white contrasts. The camera scans arms, a torso and a black sandy hill on the top of which is an apple. A hand traces a skeleton with white paint. With life and death omnipresent, motifs interweave through a flowing montage of images. In a post-nuclear scene, survivors seek to converse with the dead. Stylistically, Navel and A-Bomb alludes to the Franco-Japanese production Hiroshima mon amour (1959) directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras.

In a similar vein to Shomei Tomatsu’s iconic photographs of the atomic bomb survivors shot in 1961, Navel and A-Bomb is one of the earliest testimonies to artistic memory work, a phenomenon which only later began to emerge in Japan following the instigation of institutional or museum cultures of memory. It was not until the withdrawal of the Allied occupation forces in 1952 that the years of suppression and concealment finally came to an end. Evidently, in Japan, where farewell rites are based upon the fundamental idea of purifying the everyday existence of the living as reverently and swiftly as possible, it took some time before the symbolic significance of collective remembrance could be acknowledged.

What was the situation in the arts and throughout society, what kinds of insights were attained throughout this period? Films, performances, photo séances, sketchbooks all documented Butoh practitioners burgeoning interest in the visual patterns and formats used in the Western art, music and literature that were gaining prominence in Tokyo throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. The “Sogetsu Contemporary Series,” a series of collective events and happenings, transformed the Sogetsu Art Center (SAC) into a testing ground for avant-garde culture. It was here that Yoko Ono (1933-) performed together with John Cage (1912-1992) and his American pianist David Tudor (1926-1996) on their maiden tour of Japan. In fact, so overwhelming was the impact the Fluxus movement and New Improvised Music on the Japanese artistic scene that Cage’s concert happening Music Walk and their performances in Osaka became widely known as the “John Cage shock.”

Nam June Paik and John Godfrey in Global Groove, 1973

The co-founder of Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata and Cage paid a visit to the young Ono at her studio, where she was in the midst of preparing a solo exhibition Works of Yoko Ono (1962) to be shown at the SAC. In 1964, she staged her seminal performance piece Cut Piece, likewise at the SAC. It also sponsored performances by Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and Nam June Paik throughout that year, while a few blocks away the Japanese radical art collective Hi Red Center invited passers-by to its legendary Dropping Event (1964), at which they threw items of clothing, books and magazines from the rooftop of Tokyo’s Ikenobo Hall – a nod to Yves Klein’s Théâtre du vide with his actionist jump from a rooftop in the Parisian suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1960. During this period, a loosely-knit group of young people were sharing their lives, work, and art at Hijikata’s dance studio, the half commune, half avant-garde salon known as Asbestos-kan, Alongside Cage, Hijikata was one of the most prominent instigators of an unbounded concept of art, which triggered new sparks from the synergies generated between art, everyday life, and politics.

Minoru Hirata Anti-Expo, photograph, courtesy Taka Ishii Galery Tokyo

As Japan was progressively advancing to become a leading international player in the technological arena and Tokyo was preparing to host the 1964 Olympic Games, a culturally pessimistic, rebellious rollback movement was emerging among Japan’s younger generation of artists; they started probing the boundaries between urban and rural space, examining the extent to which the West, especially America, was exerting influence over everyday life, architectural norms, and culture in Japan. Artists and collectives reacted to the glittering promises of national reconstruction and rapid economic growth with happenings and events in which they abandoned themselves and their audiences to an aesthetic of controlled chance. They discovered fresh possibilities for expression with their bodies, which they charged with political themes and objectives. Anywhere – whether slaughterhouses, flat roofs, streets, backyards, galleries or open fields–– could become the stage for their physical interventions. Drifting through the consumer-driven reality of Japanese cities, Butoh practitioners thrust their bare torsos at the camera-lens. Hijikata’s childhood experiences of growing up in the remote impoverished mountainous region of Tohoku in north-eastern Japan deeply impacted his artistic practice. Over several years in the late 1960s, he ventured back to his native countryside – in the company of the experimental filmmaker and photographer Eikoh Hosoe (1933-) – where he spontaneously danced through the rice paddies of his youth, immersing himself into the local villagers’ introverted lives. Upon his return to Tokyo, the outright physical re-encounter with that carnal reality and true nature of his native soil led him to critically question and distance himself from Western, especially US-American influences. The ensuing photo-happening Kamaitachi/ Sickle Weasel represented a turning point that his Butoh dance had instigated, and for which Hijikata and Hosoe drew upon aesthetically diverse elements.

Minoru Hirata Anti-Expo, photograph, courtesy Taka Ishii Galery Tokyo

Flowing into each other, Butoh absorbed a wide spectrum of art forms and cultures, embedded in the dualisms between East and West, between local and global, between mind and matter: not only biographical and spiritual points of reference but also gestures and movement images from Ausdruckstanz or variations of practices exemplified by Fluxus and Performance Art. Hijikata’s sketchbooks reveal numerous correlations and references to Western avant-garde art. He devised his own choreographic notation system – Butoh-fu– encapsulating a corpus of 2000 physical movements and gestures, which ultimately enabled him to replicate his pieces via precisely elaborated, code-based “scores.” He meticulously studied movement figures and compositions in the works of Hans Bellmer, Henri Michaux, Wols, Egon Schiele, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Vaslav Nijinsky, transforming them into movement types to which he assigned poetic descriptions.

William Klein: Dance Session (with Kazuo Ohno), photography, Albertina Wien © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Just as with Fluxus, Butoh would regard itself primarily as an attitude; it was anti-art. Dance was not restricted to any specific occasion and location; one could dance at anytime and anywhere, whether standing stock-still or while moving. The first generation of Butoh practitioners thus prepared the formal fundaments for the distinction between dance and performance. Closer scrutiny of Hijikata’s and Ohno’s early tentative movements, of their social contacts, or of the visual manual Hijikata laid out in his sketchbooks, reveal the cross-cultural and inter-generational hybrid character of this Japanese underground dance form.

Ad Peterson: White Dance by Eiko & Koma

During the early 1970s, the second generation of Butoh practitioners began the spectacular globalisation of this Japanese dance form, a trend which continues to this day. Among the first wave to depart Japan and perform across Europe and the USA was the artist couple Eiko & Koma. Eiko Otake (1952-) and Takashi Koma Otake (1948-) first met at Asbestos-kan at one of Hijikata’s workshops. Once they realised just how extravagant an impact they were making during their first performances on the nightclub circuit, which Hijikata organised to finance his activities at Asbestos-kan, they became determined to emancipate themselves from the prevailing autocratic atmosphere that reigned there. In 1971, they began studying under Kazuo Ohno, whose all-embracing outlook and fluid approach to gender roles inspired them afresh. Under the moniker “Night Shockers” they performed in commercial cabaret shows, an endeavour which soon made them financially independent and provided them with the financial wherewithal to leave Japan, which they did in 1972.

They had three books in their luggage: a book about the Noh theatre, Vincent van Gogh’s correspondence to his brother Theo, and The Diary of the Vaslav Nijinsky, the trail-blazing dancer and choreographer (1889-1950). Following in Nijinsky’s footsteps they headed West; they boarded the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow, and from there onto Europe. Their performances during those early years were a “patchwork,” derived partly from Hijikata’s Butoh-fu, Kazuo Ohno’s dance forms, as well as their self-devised gestural vocabulary. Applying shironuri to their faces and bodies, they alternated between contemplative and exalted rhythms, and discovered that their political activism was mirrored in the ideas of Polish theatre reformer Jerzy Grotowski, whose theatre manifesto “Towards a Poor Theatre” (Polish 1965/English 1970) inspired them to devise a “Poor Art Style” in which social ethics, shock aesthetics, and the quest for transcendence closely intertwined. Setting themselves apart from the Butoh founders’ Ankoku Butoh, they deliberately titled all their European performances White Dance (1972-1974). Only a few months after their arrival in Germany, they were already performing at the 5th International Choreographic Competition in Cologne. Their outward-looking vulnerability, combined with the erosion of meaning and sense of stability in their performances, had such an impact that audiences found themselves emotionally overwhelmed. Eiko & Koma could reveal that which couldn’t be shown. In no time their disturbing performances were to become the subject of much commentary across the European scene.

Marion Gray: Fluttering Black, Eiko & Koma

In Amsterdam – considered the nexus for contemporary dance in the early 1970s – their White Dance performances soon became must-see events on the experimental scene. In 1976, Eiko & Koma travelled via San Francisco to New York, where they live and work to this very day. As an artistic duo, their highly individual way of dealing with a tranche of history that radically destroyed people involves expanding choreographic space into churches, museums, galleries, public parks, squares and the outdoors. With the title “Time is not Even, Space is not Empty,” the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis dedicated a large-scale retrospective to the pair in 2011. One of their most seminal works was the outdoor performance Event Fission (1980) where they danced with a billowing flag on top of an artificial sand dune at the Battery Park landfill in the shadow of the Twin Towers: “We offered a white flag, not a national flag.”

Eiko & Koma had already departed Europe for New York by the time Kazuo Ohno embarked upon his maiden international tour in 1980 at the age of seventy-four. His first port of call was France, the country that had coined the term japonisme to designate the craze for Japanese art and design in the West. The French philosopher and essayist Roland Barthes wrote a broad-ranging meditation on his visit to Japan in 1966, published under the title The Empire of Signs in1970. In a series of miniatures on sensuality, grace, and banality, Barthes analysed the upheavals in everyday culture and art. His observations and poetic projections made a significant contribution in Europe to diminishing a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Japan as an economically expansive superpower, to restoring a positive connotation to Japanese culture in public consciousness, all while slowly decentralising the prevailing culture that had been narrowly focused on all things Western. Within this echo chamber, Ohno’s overseas debut at the Festival International de Nancy triggered a fascination with Butoh’s formalised language, an interest which persists to this day. In Nancy, he presented his European première of a piece that was to become his quintessential performance namely Admiring La Argentina (1977), dedicated to the Spanish dancer Antonia Mercé, who alongside Harald Kreutzberg had been one of Ohno’s greatest sources of inspiration.

The French avant-garde and festival circuit started paying attention to Butoh. This growing awareness and dynamic thrust transformed Butoh’s dispersed individual practitioners, off-groups, and trends into an increasingly contemporary international movement that ever since has been constantly redefining the relevance of the body for our cultural memories and social narratives. Perceived as something to be experienced directly through the body, dance thus initiated a critical process that rendered tangible all kinds of crises, war, annihilation, and racism. Butoh’s initiators, as well as those artists belonging to the post-memory generation, have thus succeeded in creating a form of choreographic narrative that makes it possible to dance in the wake of Hiroshima and Auschwitz.

Johan Elbers: Event Fission, Eiko & Koma

César Vayssiée: Boris Charmatz, Levée des conflits, Association terrain

Where do we come from? Who are we? What is the future of our memory? French dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz (1973-), who as of September 2022 will direct the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, has probed how history and the human body interpenetrate. In his pieces, he reacts to “gestural uncertainties” that can arise from historical moments of upheaval, conflicts, or empty spaces. How do changes in a collective’s or an individual’s gestural resources make themselves felt? For Charmatz, the human body is a conduit of memory which stockpiles all kinds of movements and, through these movements, history. In 2009, he assumed the artistic direction of the Centre choréographique national de Rennes et de Bretagne, where he announced that the house should be a Musée de la danse – a dancing museum – and developed an innovative type of institution that combines the stage’s potential with the idea of a museum, all while recasting the audience’s role. For his internationally oriented projects, he has been guided by a conception of dance that enables history be experienced as the history of the body. Dispensing with artificial backdrops, he has dismantled narrative structures and developed a repertoire of movements that examines not only the aesthetic content of each individual gesture but also its historical forces and socially-laden energies. Charmatz has become one of the 21st century’s most influential choreographers: his use of open-air terrain, contorted bodies, nudity as an anti-costume, darkened stages, slowed-down rhythms, or an abruptly accelerated performance have all led to enhanced experiences of presence. His danse brute is more akin to Wigman’s Hexentanz and Totentanz and to Japanese anti-dance than to classical ballet, which he had studied at the École de danse de l’Opéra national de Paris before he embarked upon choreographing his own works.

In his program series Rebutoh-Evening (2009) and Rebutoh (2009 and 2012), Charmatz assembled a group of choreographers, filmmakers, and musicians in order to explore not only physical manifestations of memory but also the positive and negative dynamics of cultural appropriation based upon Butoh’s history.

Program note: Butoh Rebutoh © Boris Charmatz

Xavier Le Roy: Product of Other Circumstances

The dancer and choreographer Xavier Le Roy improvised quasi-Butoh dance owes its existence to Charmatz raising the ante: “Hello,” he wrote, “you once told me that you needed two hours to become a Butoh dancer.” Books, the Internet, images drawn from memory, and anecdotes all form a kind of mental map of movements and postures that he imitates, caricatures and permutates. What is significant about this –– and here Xavier Le Roy, Boris Charmatz and Latifa Laâbissi are exemplary for contemporary dance –is that the creative dialectic between the self and the Other is revealed just as much as are clichés, superficial knowledge, and extrapolations. The gestures’ sources and provenance are co-exhibited, the audience can determine what has been conceived as imitation, quotation, happening, or critical practice.

The process remains unfinished, which is why this discussion concerning Brücke art is so relevant: only closer scrutiny of the migration of forms and body images will enables us to better understand cultural contexts, artistic practices, and formal genealogies. With this ongoing reappraisal of our past, whether post-colonial or post-memory, additional lines of conflict are erupting. The reaction to the Berlin exhibition “Whose Expression” exemplifies this tendency. Figures, paintings, objects, photographs and replicas of different origins suddenly unleash hidden forces or new forms of aggression though altered contextualisation. Still, the migration and re-appropriation of expressionist movement inventions between the West, Africa and the Orient contains yet another message: it is not only trade routes, colonialism, wars and traumas in whose shadows cultural contact zones have been formed. It is primarily the artists themselves who, across generations and borders, share their aesthetic ideas, their critical gaze, their fantasies, their free spirits and their curiosity. Their dances, paintings, and installations embody a school of alienation and empathy. With seismographic sensitivity, they let the perceived design contexts slide into a timeless continuum of biographies, blind spots and movement trajectories which embrace a nostalgic exoticism as well as the arguments underpinning political correctness.

“Der Fremde Tanz” is based on the original contribution “Antikörper. Butoh-Rebutoh” for the exhibition catalog “Global Groove. Art Dance, Performance und Protest”, Munich 2021 which was published for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum Folkwang Essen. For the e-version, the article was updated, shortened and retranslated into English. The author owes important information, contexts and impulses to the following sources, The complete bibliography can be read in the exhibition catalog. Translated with (free version)

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