Joan Laage first saw a picture of Butoh practitioner Akaji Maro in the early 1980s while living and performing contemporary dance in Hong Kong. She recalls the striking image of him crouched in a corner with a shaven head.
“I remember thinking, ‘that looks interesting,’ ” she says on a recent fall morning as we sit on the floor across from each other at a wooden coffee table on the upper level of her Green Lake house. “A year later, I was in Japan and I was lucky enough to see a performance by his group, Dairakudakan. I sat in the audience for two-and-a-half hours and by the end I thought, ‘Wow, I found what I’ve been looking for.’ ”
Laage describes the act of trying to describe Butoh as a “slippery fish.” Some call it dance; others label it as theater; and others still as a hybrid between the two. In the simplest terms, it could be described as a type of movement that rejects the codification and formalism of other types of dance such as ballet or jazz.
It is a relatively young art form that emerged in Japan in 1959 under the collaboration of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno as a reaction to the Japanese dance scene at the time. To the average person, if they’ve heard of it, Butoh usually brings to mind grotesque imagery; extreme, twisting or distorted movement; and dancers with shaved heads and white-painted bodies. According to Laage, who trained under Butoh masters including Ohno, his son Yoshito Ohno and Yoko Ashikawa, this is only one style — as with any type of performance art or choreography, individual artists bring their own flair.
“While themes and aesthetics can be quite different,” she says, “the largest, overarching subject you’ll see in Butoh is the life cycle. Within that, of course, there are details. For me, many of the basic Butoh postures — for example, a fetal position — are experiences that we all carry, so there is a lot of universality and archetype.”
Laage, who turned 71 over the summer, could be considered the godmother of the Seattle Butoh community. In addition to decades of teaching and hundreds of performances over the years, Laage is responsible for bringing the art form to the city in the early ’90s, when she and her husband moved here from Japan, and she was also a founding member of the DAIPAN Butoh Collective, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past January (before that, she was the artistic director of Dappin’ Butoh Company from 1991-2002).
This weekend, the 10th annual Seattle Butoh Festival, titled “(Re)evolution,” will showcase work from the collective, as well as individual artists.
One of those artists, Katrina Wolfe, fell into Butoh through the visual arts. A painter and a sculptor without a dance background, Wolfe was taking classes at Gage Academy of Art in 2009 when she met local Butoh artist Vanessa Skantze while the latter was modeling for a drawing course.
“When I saw my first Butoh performance, I instantly felt this very strong connection between my sculpture work and this dance form,” Wolfe recalls. She and Laage both note that many Butoh performers are visual artists with little to no significant dance training.
“It’s interesting, when I’m teaching and I get someone with formal dance training it’s almost more difficult,” Wolfe notes. “They have these very particular long-ingrained ways of moving that are hard to let go of.”
Wolfe’s piece for the festival, “Remains of the Sacred,” is a solo work that evolved from of a set of ideas that started in 2016 when she started saving discarded figure drawings, noting that each scrap was a fragment from a once-living tree. A memorial to all the trees that have been cut down for human use, the solo features sound by local composer and musician Joey Largent and, as Wolfe notes, “honors the relationship between humans and the environment.”
The small, tight-knit Butoh community in Seattle is not a singular phenomenon. Wolfe notes that most larger cities have one, but it might be less popular than traditional forms of dance such as ballet due to its perceived strangeness.
“Butoh artists are always evolving their work,” Laage says, “but that doesn’t always mean that they are looking for new things. Maybe they are just digging the hole they are already in deeper to see what’s down there even further.”
Seattle Butoh Festival 2019: “(Re)evolution”: 8 p.m. Nov. 1-3; Taoist Studies Institute, 225 N. 70th St., Seattle; $18-$20; 206-226-9484, seattlebutohfest2019.brownpapertickets.com