Oozing the unconscious through butoh

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You are the reflection of a dead tree in a pond. Now, you are the wind gliding across the surface of the reflection of a dead tree in a pond. You are the embodiment of roadkill rotting in the hot desert sun, covered in hungry maggots. Now you are the dirt that has resulted from the idle roadkill having disintegrated into the Earth.

These are just some of the many states of being I entered into on my first day of butoh, a class I enrolled in on a whim with little knowledge of what butoh actually was.

After a chance interaction with the contagiously inspirational butoh dancer Hiroko Tamano, I went down the butoh rabbit hole, eager to learn more about this playful soul’s professional practice. Bodies painted in all white, grotesque motions, erratic gestures contrasted with hyper-controlled movements and petrifying facial expressions sparked my interest. It looked brutal, raw and honest. And the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre happened to be holding in-person butoh classes Monday evenings in November. Sign me up.

To say I’m emotional is an understatement. People can smell my cancer sign sensitivity the moment I open my mouth to say hello. But it’s not just the fact that sad movies inevitably make me cry that reveals my sensibilities. For too long, I’ve held emotional trauma in my body that I haven’t been able to physically let go of. As soon as I think it’s gone, it rises out of an unexpected touch or an embarrassing moment that temporarily shatters a part of the invisible wall I subconsciously craft around myself.

Butoh looked like an outlet to honestly express and release my unwanted attachment to the past. It also looked like a fun way to be the weirdo I naturally am.

At the start of each butoh class, I was exhausted, barely present after my busy days. I’d struggle to stay awake during the warmups as I gently wiggled on the floor next to fellow in-person students and a Zoom screen of a couple of online participants.

However, by the last half of each class, time usually dissipated and I couldn’t contain my energy. I was fully present and ready to move through the room, following instructor Iu-Hui’s spoken imagery that told me to move as if I had fallen into a sea of honey or as though the floor was made of sharp glass. It was freeing to move without thought, not caring about how people perceived me or trying to live up to some standard.

Some exercises hit deep: It was hard to resist sinking into anxiety as I attempted to embody being impregnanted by an alien, having an extraterrestrial miscarriage in a room full of my peers doing the same, sounds and all. It was also hard to unstick myself from painful past memories that begged visibility when Iu-Hui told the class to move through memory without thought, returning to emptiness before shifting to the next memory.

Sometimes, when an exercise seemed too embarrassing, my mind told my body to shield its vulnerabilities by mirroring what other people were doing. But I always ended up stepping into the void of my own imagination, discovering the joys of my unconscious. And with every movement, the separation between my mind and body naturally lessened.  

On the last night of butoh, I had a hard time getting into movement, reminding me that sensory awareness is a lifelong practice. After heightening spatial awareness of our individual energies, we shifted through partners, awkwardly exploring each other by sensing and responding to each other’s movements. But it wasn’t until I got to my final partner Dwight that I fully let go. It was Dwight’s first time coming to class in person, meaning the moment we locked eyes and fused our energies together was the first time we had ever intentionally interacted. It was intimate, intense and vulnerable. But from the moment we moved, I trust-fell into his energy and held him in mine so that we were floating in our own ball of life, constantly charging each other with a never-ending source of vitality without ever physically touching. 

In a world where eye contact is fleeting and intimacy often has strings attached, it was invigorating to feel this trust and to physically and emotionally understand that every inner feeling, every outer movement and every part that makes up the universe is eternally affecting and affected, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

With the butoh series over, the hard part now is incorporating this learning into my everyday life. But now I know how to tap into the endless pool of energy that passes through us all. So when I feel the trivial embarrassment of accidentally clicking “reply all” on a mass email or the heavier turning in of my stomach from the sudden rise of a memory that disconnects me from the present, I move my body in tune with my surroundings and imagination, finding an interconnected empathy that allows me to let go.

Who knew that embodying dirty ice sludge on the side of the road and pretending that bugs erratically exist in my fingers would invite so much growth into my life in such a short amount of time. There’s a whole gooey world of mangled animal carcasses to embody and people to share energy dances with. I’ll just have to keep consciously coalescing into the wonders that make up the world, one squirming maggot at a time.

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].