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Ghosts in the Dry Bush: Discovering Butoh and the Art of Yumi Umiumare

By Des Barry.

My guide, S—, raises the brim of my straw hat, ties a tight cotton blindfold over my eyes. She takes my left hand. The air is brutally hot and still. Palm to palm, her skin is soft and cool, her delicate fingers lie across mine, the veins and small bones on the back of her hand beneath my thumb. Sand granules slip into the sides of my black canvas shoes. Sunrays heat the skin of my face. S— lets go of my left hand. She presses something into my right palm. It feels like a rough round nut, all swirls and ridges. I run the pad of my thumb over the scratchy whorls, the open dry pods. She lifts my left arm. In the darkness, my fingertips brush against twigs and tiny waxy leaves, calf and thigh muscles flex and my ankles bend against an upward sandy slope. I have her smooth palm in my left hand and the rough nut in my right. My open shirt flaps against my cotton pants. Cool air on my face dissipates the heat of the sunrays. Shade. She eases my whole body into the branches of an unseen shrub. A gong sounds. She lets go of my hand and arm. Springy twigs and rough narrow branches press into my shoulders and chest and thighs and scrape against the straw brim of my hat. S— releases the blindfold.

Yumi’s comes voice from behind me:

“Don’t move. Don’t say anything, just look. Look for three minutes.”

Still pattern of twig, leaf and branch against the grainy dune behind, the blue of the sky above, my head surrounded by a helmet of thorns. S— puts a small square of paper into my left hand, a piece of grey charcoal into my right. Yumi’s voice again.

“Now close your eyes and draw what you saw on the paper.”

Paper on the palm of one hand, charcoal in the fingertips of the other, when I open my eyes again, the paper is scratched and smudged like the pattern of blood vessels behind my closed eyelids.


If you can tell what’s happening on the stage, it’s not Butoh.

Katsura Kan Workshop


On stage… nothing but darkness… now, stage right, a tiny red light flickers. Stage left a swirl of silvered textile catches the redness, red reflections on a robed body in deep darkness. Shadows on scrim in a dim halo of yellow light, cat-ear shapes on human heads, the moans and cries of spellbound spirits, words in Japanese, words in English:

Where are the matches?

Where are the batteries?

Where’s the torch?

Please return the light…

Gongs, drums, cymbals, rattles…

It’s not an earthquake…

The Woman holds up a silver mirror to catch a bright beam. Malevolent cat-eared spirits wrest it from her. She wrestles it back. Too many. They tear the mirror away from her…

Where is the light?

I lost it when the earth was shaking.

A hole opens at her feet. Like Alice, like Dorothy, she goes down into the underworld to search for light in the Land of Shake.



In The Australian Stage, Nic Spunde had this to say about Yumi Umiumare’s DasSHOKU SHAKE!:

I come out feeling ambivalent and uneasy. Which may, of course, have been Umiumare’s intended reaction. Certainly as I head home across the city, reasserting its Friday night routine of thumping music and raucous inebriation, my mind keeps returning to the shuddering figures on stage, the image of a world in constant shock and agitation which only monumental disaster can give pause to.


A red cotton bush-hat with white polka dots shades Yumi’s face. Her T-shirt is red, over which she wears a blue and white checked shirt that hangs down over black leggings. Her calves and feet are bare. On green plastic garden chairs, on the veranda of a tiny house near the Wimmera River in Victoria, we face east across flat dry paddocks. The sky on the horizon deepens in bands of pink, yellow and blue.

“At the age of nine, I started classical ballet,” she says. “The basic technique is a good reference point for dance. In my twenties, I went to see a Butoh performance. Eighty per cent of the performers weren’t experienced dancers. It was really transgressive. The crazy movements they made on stage intrigued me. They were very earnest people. They were scary on stage but usually quite humorous… a little twisted.

“I joined DaiRakudakan, a Butoh company founded by Akaji Maro. He was a direct disciple of Tatsumi Hijikata. Butoh as a form of avant-garde dance originated with Hijikata in 1959. I found Maro and the other members DaiRakudakan were always quite open-minded and generous. Maro’s idea was that each member of the company could take turns to create and choreograph their own projects under the umbrella of DaiRakudakan. The creator/choreographer would take the lead for his or her own project, while the other members worked as part of the technical team for lighting and costumes etc. When that project was completed, then another dancer would choreograph a new piece and the previous choreographer would become part of the technical team. This worked really well to inspire the young dancers to develop their own initiative and creativity. The young company members are now doing a great monthly performance series called Kochuten.

“In 1991, I came to Australia with the company and we did six shows at the Melbourne International Arts Festival. On that tour, I began a relationship that brought me back to Melbourne. When the relationship ended I decided to stay. I started to create Butoh Cabaret. I wanted to inject a sense of fun into the performance. Butoh, yes, began as Dance of Darkness but I always like to have the coexistence of light within the darkness.

“I’m interested in Butoh to connect with the authenticity of what’s happening right now rather than tracing its past history,” Yumi says. “I find that some of the Butoh performances around the world at the moment are just following the ‘shapes’ and ‘forms’ but not its actual spirit. In that sense, Butoh can lose its original power. It’s a very personal process to get to our own internal focus and it does require some technique. For example, with DaiRakudakan, the movements are really physical and vigorous but the performances are controlled through rhythm and counting.”

For the past twenty-five years in Australia, Yumi Umiumare has developed and performed more than thirty major dance pieces including film, cabaret, burlesque and devotional trance-dance. DasSHOKU SHAKE! is the fourth of the DasSHOKU Cabaret series – productions that have won multiple awards – and was inspired by the devastation and the physical shaking caused by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.


To find out about the origins of the form, I get hold of Bruce Baird’s Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh and I discover that on May 24th 1959, at the ‘All Japan Art Dance Newcomers Recital’ in Tokyo, Butoh first appears in the world. Hijikata has booked a space for the premiere of his choreography for duet, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours.) The title is taken from a Yukio Mishima novel.

On the darkened stage, ‘Young Man’, Yoshito Ohno, dressed only in lemon-coloured shorts, is stalked by ‘Man’, played by Hijikata. Man’s head is shaven. His torso glistens with oil and greasepaint above plaid, bell-bottom pants. A live chicken struggles in Man’s arms. Man offers the chicken to Young Man. Young Man takes it and clamps the flapping and frightened chicken between his thighs. Young Man falls to the floor. Bluesy harmonica, heavy breathing, the weight of Young Man’s body suffocates the struggling and terrified bird.

Man grabs Young Man by the hair and bends him backwards. Man appears to sodomize Young Man in the darkness. Members of the audience walk out in disgust. The performance over, Hijikata sits on the stage, cradling the dead chicken in his arms. It’s horrible. Poor bird. Ushers approach from the wings and force Hijikata to leave the stage. This performance marks the birth of Butoh, an approach to dance that Hijikata comes to call Ankoku Butoh, the dance of darkness.


I said to myself, “I’m going to see. I’m going to see what I don’t know. My lips will tremble. I shall suffer. Why not?”

Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows.


Thursday, 17th December 2015, a fire pit, around which is a hessian windbreak, serves as focal point for the formality of my own introduction to a residential Butoh intensive. Eleven women and one man are performers in modern dance, circus, physical theatre or Butoh. Anthony Pelchen, who is hosting this event, is a visual artist bringing the dimension of drawing and painting to this intensive workshop. We will all collaborate on a communal painting.

I say: “I’m not a performer; I’m a writer. I’m not interested in Butoh as a worldwide phenomenon. I’m more interested in how Butoh connects with place. I want to see what it feels like to practice Butoh from the inside while writing about Yumi’s work.”

These are half-truths: Why Butoh? Why Yumi?

I’m relatively new to Australia. I want to see what I can learn from the work of an Australian-based artist who draws on the creative roots of her birthplace and adjusts her work to the influence of the country where she lives now with its on-going tensions among Indigenous, colonial, and new immigrant cultures. Can I integrate a body-based art form into the craft of my literary work?

How will my body stand up to four days of stretching and choreography among these lithe and flexible movement artists? My body is somewhat ravaged by old rugby injuries (lower back spinal disk leading to sciatica in the thigh) and football injuries (shoulder ligament damage) and a crippling combination of lack of exercise and deskbound novel writing.


When I begin to wish I were crippled – even though I am perfectly healthy – or rather that I would have been better off crippled, that is the first step towards Butoh.

Tatsumi Hijikata, in Viala and Masson-Sekine’s Butoh, Shades of Darkness.


Hijikata based his movements on painfully acute physical memories of his early childhood, trapped in a cramped carry-basket on his mother’s back while she planted rice all day and wouldn’t let him out to piss or shit or eat or drink.

This discomfort formed a matrix for the development of his unique approach to dance performance. Although Hijikata’s choreography embraces the crippled and the cramped, his physical techniques require balance, strength, athleticism and the capacity to isolate muscles and joints of every part of the body including the myriad muscles of the face.

In 1959, some weeks after Hijikata’s first performance of Forbidden Colours, Yukio Mishima hears that the title of his novel has been appropriated without asking for his permission. Mishima arrives at the Tsuda Nobutoshi Dance Studio. He confronts Hijikata. Impromptu, Hijikata and Ohno perform Forbidden Colours for Mishima. Mishima drops his objections and brings along his friends to the studio to see the dance piece performed. He writes an essay in praise of it. Hijikata is expelled from the Japanese Modern Dance Association.

Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno – Yoshito Ohno’s father – add elements of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers to the original Forbidden Colors. Kazuo Ohno dances the part of ‘Divine’, a trans-prostitute, who is beaten to death by a gang of violent criminals. Butoh, hybrid art form of East and West, embraces the homoerotic, the violent and the transgendered to push the limits of modern dance.


“I’ve read that Butoh developed as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ I say. ‘Is that true?”

Yumi’s lips purse, her head draws back.

“That comes from some American journalists writing about Butoh. Butoh was an avant-garde art movement that began fifteen years after the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Butoh began in Tokyo. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are two completely different cities. All over the world in the early sixties there were avant-garde art movements. It’s true that there was a lot of political and social unrest at the time in Japan but that was true everywhere, too.”

I think: Beats, John Cage, Pina Bausch, the Living Theater, Warhol. I think: all over Britain, Europe, America, Australia, rock and roll and dope were revolutionizing youth culture, were challenging consumerist mores, before being swallowed up and sold back by corporate marketers. Yes, Butoh is a decidedly Japanese response to the avant-garde moment of the sixties while at the same time absorbing expressionism, surrealism, Dada.


On the first night of the four-day Butoh training, we begin by walking through the shadows beneath a copse of shaggy barked gum trees. Just walking. The evening air has cooled from the day’s forty-degree heat. Across the flat dry paddocks, the eucalypts fade to silhouettes on the horizon, grey earth, yellow grass, the crackle and snap of twigs underfoot.

The original owners were the Jardwadjali people. This area of Victoria was the site of terrible massacres in the 1830s.

What am I doing here… in this place now?

“Just walk…”

Fourteen bodies drift through the space beneath the trees …


Bodies pick up speed… sudden appearance of unknown faces… strangers curious at each other’s being, looking to connect, fearful of connection… attraction and repulsion… Ribs and hips and shoulders press together, yips and howls, a sense of panic, anxiety. I roll on the ground… gnarled sticks and seedpods dig into the flesh of my back. Above me the criss-cross shift of hanging branches, the rattle of dry leaves in the hot breeze.


“I like the performance aspect of Butoh with the fun and the spectacle, but right now I feel like reconnecting with nature,” Yumi says.


Clear sky, pre-dawn, the temperature is due to rise to forty-one degrees. Six o’clock. Still fresh. Silent walk led by Anthony across land that has been in his family for a few generations. Orange burn in the east. The sun bursts into light through the trunks and branches of the far gum trees.

We lost one participant last night. She left because of a panic attack.

Smooth grey bark dappled pale orange on the tree trunks. Beneath the branches, the twiggy detritus of vanished winds, rusted ploughs and harrows, a mound of worn-out tyres. Scattered with black sheep droppings, yellow grass crackles beneath my soles: along the riverbank, the flat cool of the river surface. Kookaburra call and cockatoo, magpie carillons and the flit of honeyeaters. On our return to the tiny house and the studio sheds, the cactus plantings and the hessian circle, we begin the first exercises to loosen the joints: from feet to knees to hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists, neck and head.


As part of the Yijala Yala Project, Yumi co-choreographed a BIGhART performance called Hipbone Sticking Out:

            In the town of Roebourne a young man, John Pat, scuffles with police, hits his head on the footpath and is left in a police lockup. He finds himself travelling through time from the beginning, meeting Greco/Roman Gods, tracing the spice routes, the exploration of the Indian Ocean, the paintings of Vermeer, the pop music of 1800’s, the coming of ghost people to Ngarluma country, slavery, pearling, new law, ancient law, and the mining boom of the present.


The story of one young man’s trouble is used to personalize the big version of the Spinifex people who were driven from their land after the Australian government agreed to Britain’s request to use nearby country to test atom bombs… While physical illness in terms of cancer is widespread, so was the dispersion of community and consequently language… If you dip into the BIGhART website, you can find out how to enroll in Pitjanjatjara, the language of the Spinifex people… On the matter of radiation poisoning, the cast includes Japanese-born Yumi Umiumare who contributes her own people’s version of this catastrophe; and we are reminded too that Australian scientists stole the bones of hundreds of infants for years, both black and white, to test for the effect of pre-natal radiation poisoning. So white people have also been abused.

James Waites, The Australian Stage review of Ngapartji Ngapartji


“That day the light in the sky was so beautiful, so colourful, pink and purple, I didn’t know it was called Jishingumo, the earthquake sky.”


Inspired by photographs from the turn of the 20th century, Yumi and filmmaker Sean O’Brien reimagine the story of Noriko, one of a troupe of Japanese female performers, known as karayuki-san, ‘women who work in a foreign land,’ who toured outback towns to entertain locals and itinerant Asian workers.

The film is a hybrid of Japanese ghost story and Australian tale of naive innocents lost in the bush.

How much farther should I walk?

How vast it is… there are many hands in this cave.

Who put them here?

When will the bird escape?

When the sun rises at midnight.

You may go through but you might not come back.

From Sunrise at Midnight, dir. Sean O’Brien.


Yes, Butoh’s origins are influenced by Dada, de Sade, Georges Bataille, Lautrémont, Genet and German Expressionist Neue Tanz, but as time went on, Hijikata drew more and more on his Japanese roots. It seems impossible to separate Japanese traditions from Butoh, no matter how transgressive it is. Butoh draws on Kabuki and Noh while it also subverts them. Hijikata’s choreography is based on visualizations and embodiments of animals and spirits and the five elements.


“Is it true that Butoh challenged the Japanese traditions of the sensei–student relationship?” I ask.

Yumi looks aghast. I feel like I’ve made a faux-pas. Yumi is here to teach Butoh. I’ve come here to learn it. That means she is the sensei and I am the student. But maybe her annoyance is more about traditional attitudes to women.

“In the early Butoh period, Japan was quite male-dominated and Butoh seemed to follow that tradition, so companies were usually led by charismatic men. Some women dancers were only credited their personal names and not their surname. Lots of women Butoh practitioners worked for Hijikata’s widow at her expensive burlesque club.”


So what is Butoh? What is the spirit of Butoh that the performer needs to catch? Butoh shares its indefinability with Zen but Butoh practitioners hang out in burlesque bars and not in monasteries. Butoh embraces all of life, its suffering, its creativity, its sexuality, its cruelty, its ecstasy, in order to create a dance of total presence. I want to draw on its aesthetic to inform my own work. But the truth is that I’m interested in how Butoh may let me embody that inexplicable, non-verbal state, that elusive ‘natural state of being’ here in this country, in the place where I find myself now. Through previous meditation practices, I have some experience of that beyond-verbal ‘natural state.’ Through participating in Butoh, can I find myself in that ‘natural condition’ without having to become a ‘Butoh devotee’?

This is my koan.


I learned Butoh inside my mother’s womb… all dancing and all the arts come from this source.

Kazuo Ohno in Sondra Horton Fraleigh’s Dancing into Darkness.


We are broken from birth. We are only corpses standing in the shadow of life.

Tatsumi Hijikata in Viala and Masson-Sekine’s Butoh, Shades of Darkness.


On the second morning, I wake up in the tent with pain in both shoulders, in the small of my back and between my shoulder blades. I’ve been sleeping on the ground with just a yoga mat and nothing much for a pillow. I swallow down some Ibuprofen before we drive out to Mount Arapiles not long after dawn. The traditional owners are the Djurid Balud people and the mountain’s traditional name is Djurit.

Raptors float on the thermal winds. Flat country opens out far below the outcrops. The combination of flora and fauna and earth forms suggests to me that connection with Nature’s creative energy that we sometimes experience in archetypal dreams. We take turns to stand on the edge of the cliffs and we generate laughter until our bodies shake.


On the evening before we finish the residential intensive, groups of three participants choreograph a final performance. I feel like I’ve let down my co-performers. Their ideas are far more radical than I feel comfortable doing: naked, covered in mud, a possible S&M scenario with bullwhips, and a solo song with ukulele.

I wish I’d gone all the way there with them but I feel disconnected, alien. Too late now, the moment has passed. I’m sorry…


Butoh conceives of the body as a corpse – a dead body. You can see the body better when it is in the state of a corpse… The best walking is a death row inmate being led to his death… He is stepping toward certain death. So in his steps the power of death is alive… Butoh is not really a genre. It defines total presence.

Akira Kasai in Sondra Horton Fraleigh’s Dancing into Darkness.


I return to Melbourne and sign up for two workshops with Katsura Kan, a Japanese Butoh teacher from Kyoto. After a week of exercise and choreographic work, as part of the workshop participants’ final show, I need to develop a four-minute performance piece. I splice together a soundtrack of Marlene Dietrich and William Burroughs singing Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fuss Auf Liebe Eingestellt (Falling in Love Again) with overdubs of John Cage’s Roaratorio. I perform the piece as a duet with a young dancer named Emina Aliyyah. To my relief, and delight, we have more than a polite reception.

At the end of the night, I envisage a day of rest and then returning here on the following evening to watch Katsura Kan’s and Du Du’s final performance called Dance of Embryo. Kan approaches me at the post-workshop party and asks if I’d be willing to participate in a choreography he’s written for three men as part of his last evening’s showcase. I accept. Perhaps I might have been the only available male but I’m pleased that he thought me capable of doing the performance.

I am back at the studio to rehearse at 1pm the next day.


Saturday night: I’m dressed in a fundoshi, a red loincloth. My otherwise naked body is covered in white paint, my lips, eyes and forehead lined in reds and blues. On stage with Takashi Takiguchi (Taka) and Caesar the Strongman, I make my full Butoh debut in a performance piece choreographed by Katsura Kan. I’m in a state of euphoria, shock and high adrenalin.


Hot summer Wednesday morning at Bottoms Up Burlesque School in Brunswick, feathered fans and pairs of patent leather fuck-me pumps on the windowsills. A poster for a Gallery of Erotic Women is on the walls. On the floor for Yumi’s Butoh class, we begin with stretches, progress to walking through space, then forty-five minutes of non-stop ever-faster leaps, kicks, jumps – sweat and muscle-ache. And we conclude with improvisations based on interior visualisations. Yumi has practised Butoh for more than thirty years. The kind of presence she brings to her work embodies that.

So where the fuck am I going to take this small amount of knowledge, and these intense few months of learning and experience?


I am the first spectator to enter the space. The lights are low. A walkway is marked with hundreds of hanging teabags. Taka has a dark robe and dark red woven apron. Behind him, Yumi is lit up in the polished box of a traditional Japanese tearoom. Her kimono is dark purple with a dark red sash. Yumi has begun the tea ceremony alone. Taka indicates that I should sit in a lit up corner of the room. He pours me a cup of tea from a red teapot. To the left of the tearoom, a bearded man with bare torso and shaven head is sitting at a café table and possibly playing patience.

Taka escorts me across the studio space. I sit in front of a monumental Ikebana flower arrangement. I gaze into the leaves and petals and pistils and colours and textures until Taka invites me to follow him to a dark alcove. A toilet is covered in green Astroturf. Behind that is a white bidet with white lights and crumpled white toilet paper, and behind that a video screen comes to life showing, from above, a white porcelain toilet with a brush laid on its lid. On screen, a door opens next to this virtual toilet. An arm appears. On screen, Yumi’s tea ceremony teacher, Adam Wojcinski, dressed in a kimono, cleans the toilet with brush, cloth and a bright green powder that permeates the water in the bowl. The celebrant flushes it away. It’s a Duchamp tea ceremony. The video screen fades to white. I leave the alcove.

Taka brings me to the formal tearoom.

Do I sit outside or inside? I go and sit inside. Could be wrong. Yumi, right beside me, is focussed on the tea: the little brush with a tiny pea of green tea caught in its prongs, the bamboo ladle for the water, the metal furo brazier to heat the water, the delicate flat scoop for the powdered tea in its round black lacquer box, the irregular shape of the cup. Yumi dips. She pours. She swirls the brush. She pours away the water. She wipes the cup with a white cloth, a red cloth. She opens the lacquer box and scoops out powdered tea. She lids the box. She ladles water into the cup. She swirls the brush and places it down, another tiny green pea of tea in its prongs. She rotates the cup. She holds the cup out to me.

I take the cup in both hands. I’m probably supposed to do something ritualistic here but I don’t know what. I raise the cup in thanks. I look into the liquid that is the same colour as the toilet cleaning fluid in the Duchamp-style video. I lift the cup of aromatic tea. I sip it: slightly bitter, slightly sweet, delicious.

Across the studio space, a steady stream of people comes through the curtained entrance. Taka directs them to the cushions in the corner, to chairs with aromatic grass boxes in which to rest their feet, to the cushions around the Ikebana display.

I swallow the rest of the bright green tea.

At the threshold of the tearoom, the half-naked bald man is curled on a cushion. He crawls into the tearoom. He presses the top of his warm and sweaty head against my hand. Yumi gets up and enters the studio space. The half-naked man comes up onto his knees. I mirror his movements: he mirrors mine. I get up and enter the studio space.


The audience has gone. I sit with Yumi and Gregory, the erstwhile half-naked bald man, and Taka and Noriko. Yumi has an iron kannabe kettle filled with sake. She pours the warm clear liquid into cups for each of us. High on adrenalin, the sake flows, cup after cup. Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the tsunami that caused the meltdown at Fukushima nuclear plant.


Where are the answers? How do we respond? In what language? Jardwadjali, Fukushima, Aleppo, Lesbos, Nauru, Ngapartji Ngapartji, Yijala Yala: Ankoku Butoh, these words, this dance… this dance… this dance…



Photographs of Wimmera Butoh Intensive by Anthony Pelchen

Other images from www.yumi.com.au



Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, quite a lot in 3:AM Magazine, and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. He’s putting the final touches on a new novel set in New York City. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 27th, 2016.