Vangeline and the Dance of Darkness

Butoh came to Brooklyn via France, and the Japanese duet with death is kept alive by Vangeline.

Vangeline and the Dance of Darkness

I saw Vangeline perform on Halloween. It was the first time I had seen Butoh dance. In fact, at the time,
I wasn’t aware that I was watching Butoh or even that Butoh existed.

What I saw was this:

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They experienced death in a way our generation in the West can’t imagine.

A bone-white witch, dressed as if brought forth from the past, lit from below to cast a vast shadow, moving incredibly slowly and deliberately while clutching a tattered piece of string. I entered a hypnotic state of slowtime not unlike the time we experience during a catastrophic accident.Weeks later I asked Vangeline to tell me more about her practice. She started by telling the story of Butoh. Ankoku Butoh is short for “Dance of Darkness.” It was co-founded in the wake of World War Two by two Japanese dancers: Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, both of whom were profoundly affected by the war.

Hijikata’s seven brothers went off to war and came back in seven urns. His sister was sold into prostitution, but he claimed that when he danced, the spirit of his sister danced with him. Ohno was a Prisoner of war for 9 years on a ship where dead bodies were routinely dumped off the side into the ocean. Vangeline notes that “They experienced death in a way our generation in the West can’t imagine. The shadow of death was really present in post-war Japan. Young men and women were trying to find out what was left to them. Traditional Japan had failed them because it brought them to nothing. They were attracted to American culture, particularly jazz and black culture, but they also rejected it because they were trying to figure out what it meant to be Japanese.”

But, I wondered, if the creators of Butoh experienced death in a way that we can no longer understand, how does a 4th generation Butoh dancer like Vangeline so far removed from World War Two approach the art form? Vangeline’s explanation is twofold.

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Red and Bone White

Vangeline’s primary studies in Butoh were split between Japan and Mexico. In Japan, her teacher was Tetsuro Fukuhara, a former Hijikata collaborator and founder of Tokyo Space Dance. In Mexico it was Diego Piñón (Butoh Ritual Mexicano), who resides in the mountains where he combines Butoh with shamanism and demands extensive rituals of initiation. I ask, half kidding, if she had to scale the mountain in order to study with Pignon. She answers cryptically, “You have to do a lot of things.” While one of her teachers was Mexican, her generation of Butoh dancers — the 4th generation — is generally considered to be the first generation to include non-Japenese dancers. And an important part of Vangeline’s Butoh dance company’s mission is to bring Butoh teachers to New York to help extend Butoh’s global dissemination. Another part of Vangeline’s mission that makes immediate Butoh’s relationship with violence is her work in prisons where she teaches inmates the art form. Her incarcerated students perform Butoh for an audience of other inmates, staff, and Vangeline always invites civilians to the prison performances. “I think it’s important for people from the outside to witness it, to be open, and overcome prejudices about the prisoners, and it’s also very meaningful to the inmates that people from the outside take the time to see the results of their hard work. We do the performance right before they’re released to make it a symbolic moment for them.” The ones who go on to stick with Butoh through Vangeline’s scholarship program go on to do very well with their parole because “it’s a place where you have permission to really express whatever dark reality has been in your life, and god knows they’ve had a lot of that.”

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Vangeline is French. She came to New York 21 years ago and began studying Butoh 15 years ago after seeing a performance at BAM, which changed the entire direction of her life. She feels that and her entire background is what creates her individual style of Butoh. She describes the individuality of her style as the product of “The encounter of a Japanese artform with a French artist living in the U.S.” For Vangeline Butoh is a lifelong commitment, a lifechoice.

The first answer is that Butoh has always been multifaceted. “Butoh is an avant garde dance form that has been evolving since World War Two. Hijikata was like Picasso. He had a blue period and a red period, and the dance changed; every 10 years it evolved. Then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he sent his disciples all over the world. And it is said that the encounter between Butoh and the rest of the world changed Butoh.”

The second answer is that the “Dance of Darkness” remains relevant to 21st-century dancers because it forces its audience to confront violence in a way that we are currently unaccustomed to. “We don’t live in the aftermath of Hiroshima, but violence has not been eradicated. And western culture has terribly inadequate means of dealing with our violent impulses. People are attracted to Butoh because we are provoked by what make us uncomfortable, like death, mental illness, and poverty. Butoh has a way of touching on these things in a very direct way.”

While the original Butoh emerged from the violence the Japanese experienced in World War Two, Vangeline seems to suggest that a new role for Butoh could be taking ownership of modern society’s violence. “We don’t confront our own violence. We as human beings project violence onto the other: we bomb someone else. Butoh is a tool to look at our own darkness and take responsibility.”

However, a confrontation with violence is only half of Butoh’s dance with darkness. The other half is more literal: a belief in the possession by something supernatural, perhaps dead. When we get into this, Vangeline reminds me that Hijikata himself, the co-founder of Butoh, believed that the spirit of his sister danced with him. And Vangeline’s teachers came from this tradition within Butoh. “[My teachers] emphasized that we can dance with the spirit. We can be inhabited by spirits when we dance.” In fact, Vangeline literally invokes spirits as part of her preparation before each performance. “I view my dance as a bridge between the material world and the spiritual world.”

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