Probing Modernity Through Butoh: Akaji Maro
Half a century after he created his own company in Japan, Butoh master Akaji Maro will be in Paris in April with Gold Shower, a piece he cocreated with the French contemporary choreographer François Chaignaud. From his early days in Tatsumi Hijikata’s studio to his recent forays into science and artificial intelligence, his career has defined in many ways what Butoh can be today.
In 1956, an official annual report on Japan’s economy announced that the country had reached “the end of the postwar era.” Around the same time, in reaction to the disaster of World War II, a young Japanese generation forcefully rejected the “modern” values that had been promoted by Japan’s artists and politicians since the end of the 19th century. Butoh – initially described as a “dance of darkness” – emerged in that context, building on a 1959 performance by the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata. Through movement that aimed to explore chaos, death and the darker corners of the psyche, Hijikata turned his back once and for all on modern dance, whose methods he had trained in and knew well.
A few years later, a young actor who had already gained some fame in the underground theatre scene found himself in Hijikata’s studio. As he was homeless, Hijikata took him in as a handyman. His name? Akaji Maro.
Maro watched late-night rehearsals between the two Butoh masters of that era, Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. He came to see, he later explained, that the language of theatre he knew was limited, and felt increasingly attracted to the possibilities offered by the human body in terms of amplitude, expressivity and depth. In 1972, Maro launched his own company, Dairakudakan, but as an actor, he initially didn’t dare to use the word “Butoh.” His pieces were described instead as Tempu Tenshiki (“ceremonies inspired by innate talents”). Being born in this world, to Maro, was already a “talent,” and his work gradually focused on highlighting the strength of presence a physical body can achieve on stage.
“Hijikata’s work referred to his country and its rural population. He had a gift for shedding light on dark and negative images, and from then on, art became accessible to the people. Any quotidian gesture could be art, or become beautiful in the eyes and consciousness of each audience member,” Akaji Maro explained in a series of interviews published in the book Danser avec l’invisible (Riveneuve Éditions). Maro recalls that Hijikata grew up in Akita, a region where there are a lot of rice plantations: “His starting point was the sensation of legs deep in the mud of the rice fields. He urged dancers to feel the pressure of the mud and how it envelops the feet, and to dance with the sensation of its weight.”
Maro, on the other hand, grew up in Nara, one of Japan’s former capital cities. “On this ancestral land, the world of Japanese mythology remains very present in people’s minds,” he explains. “What’s more, this western region is very fond of humor, so there is a lot of self-deprecation in what I do. It’s also a way of showing whatever doubt I may have about my Butoh pieces, which I work on and present very sincerely and seriously.”
In the 1980s, Maro even dramatized the dialogue between deities and the people of yore. One of his most famous pieces, Kai-in no Uma, which gives a prominent place to the god Susanoo, an important figure in Japanese mythology, was presented at the American Dance Festival and at the Avignon Festival in 1982 – an early opportunity for the choreographer to get acquainted with foreign audiences. “Western audiences have a rich vocabulary. Their reactions to my work have been quite varied and full of imagination: often it feels as if another piece emerges from what we show them onstage. There is strength to me in never rejecting what they’ve seen, as they do, even if they don’t understand it,” Maro says. “In Japan, people don’t say much.” Japanese audiences manifest their thoughts in other ways, he adds. “They’ll say they liked it even if they didn’t understand it. And they often get teary-eyed when they say that to me. It’s interesting for me to try to figure out why they’re crying, because the balance between ‘knowledge’ and ‘emotions’ is central to human life.”
Over the past few years, Maro has been focused on the past – particularly with The Insects’ Planet and Virus – and on the future of humanity. Pseudo Human/Super Human, for example, explored the fantasy (and irony) of AI robots who might condemn and annihilate humanity for its sins. The collapse of the universe and the potential disappearance of mankind have been on Maro’s mind, too, as 2021’s Dark Matter suggested. Last year, he presented The End and Beginning – two parts of a cosmic trilogy, along with Dark Matter – for the 50th anniversary of his Dairakudakan company. His latest shows all boast scores by the American DJ and producer Jeff Mills, who shares Maro’s passion for the universe.
On the other hand, after a collaboration with Bill T. Jones some years ago, Maro has only rarely worked with foreign dancers. France’s François Chaignaud, with whom he created Gold Shower in Paris in 2020, is the most recent exception. This unlikely duet, which miraculously survived the pandemic, will be revived in the Théâtre national de Chaillot in April. “The creation process was difficult but here we are. The piece is much richer than we anticipated,” Maro says. “François and I are very different and at the same time, we get along very well. What we have created feels more playful than hard work, so to speak.”
Now aged 80, Maro still surrounds himself with young dancers, just as other masters of Japanese dance opted to do in the past, from Ushio Amagatsu to Carlotta Ikeda, Ko Murobushi and Anzu Furukawa. “I hope my dancers will follow in the footsteps of what I have created with Dairakudakan, that they will expand on the Dairakudakan/Maro method and forge their own creative path with joy,” says Maro with a smile. Maro remains a fan of the Ichinin Ippa philosophy: according to it, every performer has their own individual way of developing choreographic work. “Each dancer has a school inside their body. I personally still enjoy choreographing pieces for my own aging body and putting it on stage, like a work of art in itself.”
choregraphy Francois Chaignaud & Akaji Maro
from 12.04 to 15.04. 2023
Chaillot - Théâtre national de la danse, Paris