Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, and: Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo

SanSan Kwan
Dance Research Journal, Volume 41, Number 2, Winter 2009, pp. 107-110 (Review)
Published by University of Illinois Press

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SENSATIONAL KNOWLEDGE: EMBODYING CULTURE THROUGH JAPANESE DANCE by Tomie Hahn. 2007. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 224 pp., 8 illustrations, 6 figures, DVD, notes, glossary, references, index. $70.00 cloth, $26.95 paper. HIJIK ATA TATSUMI AND OHNO K AZUO edited by Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura. 2006. New York and London: Routledge. xii + 144 pp., photographs, glossaries, bibliography, index. $110.00 cloth, $28.95 paper. Two new publications on Japanese dance, one on nihon buyo, a traditional Japanese dance form, and the other on butoh, an avantgarde Japanese dance form, share a common theme of dance as transformation through deep bodily training. Whereas ideas of bodymind dualism prevail here in the West, these Japanese forms engage in the effort to think through the body, to act through the body, to reach a unity of body and mind as a way, somewhat paradoxically, to escape the mundanity of flesh and thought. The result for highly trained practitioners of both nihon buyo and butoh is transfiguration in the moment of performance. Both books discuss the ways in which the greatest artists in their respective forms transmogrify on stage—that is, the way in which they embody and in fact become a kind of spiritual presence. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, by Tomie Hahn, approaches dance as transformation by looking at the learned processes through which dancers achieve unity of body and mind. Hahn’s work is an auto-ethnographic study of the traditional Japanese dance form, nihon buyo. The book is concerned with the contemporary practice of teaching and learning

this art form, particularly how nihon buyo is transmitted through direct corporeal communication through the senses: visual, tactile, and oral/aural. In studying how nihon buyo is taught, Hahn shows us more broadly the ways in which forms of cultural transmission reveal cultural and aesthetic values and, alternatively, how cultural and aesthetic values determine forms of transmission. Hahn bases her study on her thirty-plus years of training in nihon buyo, shaping her analysis through her embodied experience of learning the form. This firsthand perspective, conveyed in thoughtful, careful, and evocative writing, is itself the primary evidence for her formulations about how Japanese dance is transmitted through the body, and, as a result, transforms the individual. Hahn uses the image of the Japanese fan, sensu, to describe the way her book unfolds in small vignettes that can be viewed either separately or unfurled as a whole to reveal a larger picture of embodied cultural awareness as represented by a Japanese dance community. Dedicated to the importance of corporeal knowledge in understanding nihon buyo, Hahn intersperses the five chapters of the book with “Orientations”; these short sections invite readers to participate in guided activities meant to help them approach the subject matter sensorially and thus bring a visceral mindfulness to the reading of the text. Body and mind are at work together. The first three chapters of the book provide a history of nihon buyo and introduce the hierarchical, familial structure of nihon buyo pedagogy, called the “iemoto system,” where students are initiated into a school’s “family” and a single patriarch or matriarch presides over all teaching and operations in the school. After laying out this terrain, Hahn discusses how nihon buyo honors four aesthetic approaches shared across many Japanese art forms: simplicity, irregularity, sugges-

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tion, and impermanence. Hahn demonstrates how nihon buyo is squarely “Japanese” in its faithfulness to these Japanese artistic ideals. In chapter 4 Hahn presents the bulk of her ethnographic fieldwork as well as the core of her argument. She describes a typical day at the Hatchobori dance studio and provides a geographic layout of the studio space, including the ways in which hierarchical relationships of viewing and dancing are regulated spatially. This chapter is then divided into four subsequent sections, each focusing on the communication of nihon buyo from teacher to student through a particular sensory medium: visual, tactile, oral/aural, and, finally, through the mediating assistance of notation and electronic recording. Hahn provides a very careful study of each of these forms of transmission by discussing her own learning experiences and through detailed analysis of the learning situations of other students, ranging from novice to advanced. Hahn outlines the dilemma in transmitting the energetic sensibility of nihon buyo from teacher to student: the tension between employing a learning model of rote imitation of choreography and discovering kokoro, or heart, in the performance of the dance. This trick of transforming what is initially learned as imitative shapes and movements into an expression of the soul is the key to nihon buyo—and, I would argue, to other Japanese forms, such as noh. Through her detailed evocations of her own and others’ learning processes, Hahn demonstrates how this transformation in the practitioner occurs, how mundanely practiced dance steps become sublime performances of kokoro. As a companion to this chapter, Sensational Knowledge includes a DVD that shows each of the learning moments described. The text very clearly corresponds to chapters in the DVD, which are broken down into several lessons showing visual, then tactile, then

oral transmission examples, with time stamps electronically marked so that the viewer/ reader can go directly to a particular moment described in the book and watch it on the DVD. The inclusion of this DVD, and the way that Hahn carefully correlates her text with the recorded examples, is tremendously effective. How many times in dance scholarship have we read meticulous and evocative descriptions of bodily movement used as evidence for larger academic arguments and wished we could see the dance itself to get confirmation or deeper understanding? Hahn’s inventive use of a DVD to accompany her text in a precise and meaningful way is very successful and makes the book a good teaching tool. Sensational Knowledge concludes with a discussion of the phenomena of flow and presence in nihon buyo as performance qualities that rely upon full sensual awareness. This kind of acute multisensorial perception is available to the well-trained body and carries a transformative power. The “sensational knowledge” that is acquired in the dance studio—the hours, days, weeks, and years of learning this highly regulated dance practice through bodily transmission—ultimately leads to a kind of extraordinariness in performance, or what Hahn terms a “dis-orienting” (170) of self. This book is clear, well-organized, and written in a quietly diligent voice. Hahn evokes her teachers and fellow students with clarity and obvious respect. She deftly interweaves personal anecdote, examples of lessons observed during fieldwork, sociohistorical context, ethnographic theory, and dance theory. Her analyses of the teacherstudent dynamic during lessons in the studio are particularly detailed and convincing. This book’s focus on the embodied learning process in nihon buyo, as a way to understand the dance form and as a way to understand

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Japanese cultural and aesthetic values more largely, makes it a significant contribution to both Japanese performance scholarship and dance studies. Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, by Sondra Fraleigh and Tamah Nakamura, is similarly interested in Japanese dance as a vehicle for metaphysical transfiguration. Part of the Routledge Performance Practitioners series, which is a series of “introductory guides to the key theatre-makers of the last century” (back cover), this volume provides biographies and introduces the work of the two main founders of butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. In exploring the partnership between these two dancers, the book also serves as an introduction to butoh more generally, as well as an investigation of the sociopolitical context of post–World War II Japan as a backdrop to the founding and development of the form. The book begins with a biography of Hijikata and an account of his development as an artist. It then depicts the meeting of Hijikata and Ohno and outlines Ohno’s life history. Through these depictions the authors demonstrate how the backgrounds and the personalities, as well as the political and aesthetic values, of these two artists shaped the dance form they created. Hijikata’s childhood in a poor northern farming village inspire butoh’s intimacy with the natural world as well as its gnarled and hunched shapes and deeply grounded bodies. In addition, Hijikata’s experience with East-West tensions before and after World War II profoundly shape butoh’s defiance of Western philosophic values of body-mind dualism and Western dance’s ideals of length and verticality. At the same time, Hijikata’s interest in the West’s surrealist and absurdist movements, his training in German Expressionist dance, and his devotion to the literature of Jean Genet also deeply affect the development of the butoh aesthetic.

Of course, the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also widely credited as the impetus for butoh’s interest in death, destruction, and transmogrification. Fraleigh and Nakamura demonstrate how Hijikata’s participation in the political and cultural upheaval of post–atomic bomb 1960s Tokyo shapes the darkness and the shocking nightmarishness of his choreography. In striking contrast, Ohno’s butoh is delicate and lyrical. Having converted to Christianity at age twenty-four, Ohno is influenced by Christian themes of life, death, and resurrection. He is also deeply guided by ideas about the sacredness of motherhood and a return to the organic experience inside the womb. The authors also cite Ohno’s son’s suggestion that his father’s experience as a soldier during World War II reveals itself through his choreography. As with Hijikata, Ohno, too, is preoccupied with death and transformation. The extreme differences between the two men’s styles—Hijikata’s as raw and dark and Ohno’s as refined and compassionate— combine to produce an art form steeped in contrast and paradox. In addition to providing biographical information, Fraleigh and Nakamura also use the occasion of this book to document the artistic work of these two artists, including both their writings and spoken words, as well as descriptions and analyses of five major works by Hijikata and/or Ohno. Because of their emphasis on the experiential nature of butoh, Fraleigh and Nakamura rely here on their personal responses to the five dances they chronicle, as well as on experiences chronicled by others. Hijikata’s and Ohno’s highly contrasting personalities are revealed in the documentation of their writings and spoken words. Especially in the case of Hijikata, writings, or butoh-fu (literally “dance chronicles”), become simultaneously works of poetry in their own right, inspiration for

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choreography—both Hijikata’s own and others’—and a record of created dance works. Like Hahn with nihon buyo, Fraleigh and Nakamura insist upon butoh as visceral knowledge, and, thus, like Hahn, they include a section that invites readers to embody the practice. The final chapter, “Dance Experiences,” provides several butoh exercises drawn from nine prominent butoh teachers. The exercises involve physical, mental, and spiritual experimentation and some writing. For instance, Nakajima Natsu’s workshop, entitled “Becoming Nothing/Becoming Something,” asks the practitioner to participate in a moving meditation on disappearance: “Carry eternity with you, and your ancestors. Walk to the other side of the room as you ask your body to disappear. Nothing to think. Nothing to do. Become nothing” (107). This exercise demonstrates the way in which butoh, like nihon buyo and noh, employs bodily action as a means toward spiritual transformation. Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo serves as a useful introduction to the art of butoh and a biography of butoh’s two main founders. The book’s emphasis on the phenomenology of butoh is clearly developed. Though this volume suffers a bit in organization of material and tends to repeat information in several places—perhaps due to the difficulties of co-authorship—its close readings of key butoh works and its portrayal of actual butoh practice through the exercises in the last chapter are significant contributions. What emerges from these two books is an insistence on corporeality, on bodily sensation, as a way to look at, to teach, and to understand dance. In both cases, the authors have developed inventive methods for conveying a phenomonelogical approach to the readers/experiencers of Japanese dance. These texts, in attempting to honor and invite the perceptual knowledge of the body, are ultimately faithful to the values of nihon

buyo and butoh, both of which engage the practitioner in deeply concentrated physical training as a way of transforming body, mind, and spirit into one. SanSan Kwan California State University, Los Angeles ANARCHIC DANCE edited by Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie with Ian Bramley. 2006. London and New York: Routledge. 197 pp., photographs, DVD. $53.95 paper. I will admit that as I began to read Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie’s edited volume focusing on their own body of work, I was a bit turned off by the glowing tones of the contributors. One after another, each article included some gushing admission of partiality in what felt like a love fest for insiders. As someone unfamiliar with Aggiss and Cowie’s collaborative partnership, Divas Dance Theatre, I couldn’t at first locate a way into forming my own experience of the work. But as I continued to read and view the chapter illustrations on the DVD included with the book, my position shifted. I re-examined the volume in terms of the persistent problem of dance documentation and transmission and the corollary marginalization of the field. Many dance artists (particularly in Europe) have begun addressing this problem by creating their own traces of their creative labors. For example, Siobhan Davies has received substantial support to establish a dynamic digital archive. Emio Greco and his collaborators are integrating notation and media tools to record and teach Greco’s movement values. And William Forsythe, already known for his canny use of technology, continues to employ interactive media to elucidate his choreographic thinking. These artists and others are initiating collaborative projects with groups of researchers

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