“He was in some ways a very traditional shaman,” says Natsu Nakajima, an original member of Tatsumi Hijikata’s first butoh company. “But why I was charmed by Hijikata and by butoh was the sympathy for the lowest people–drunk people, sick people, disabled people, weak people.”

It was in May 1959 that Hijikata first outraged the Tokyo dance-theater establishment with a dark, expressionistic piece called Forbidden Colors, which included the onstage slaughter of a chicken. This performance marked the advent of ankoku butoh (“dance of darkness”), a new discipline that would make Hijikata a major figure in postwar Japanese dance.

Largely a reaction to the massive Westernization of Japanese culture in the years following World War II, butoh developed in the 1960s as an underground movement under the leadership of Hijikata and his colleague Kazuo Ohno. They held that Japanese culture and society had lost vitality because of the ossification of traditional artistic forms such as No and Kabuki and because Western-style industrial capitalism had alienated the Japanese from themselves and from nature. Hijikata and Ohno drew inspiration from various early-20th-century forms of popular Japanese entertainment and from Kabuki before its 19th-century elevation to the status of “high art.” They were also influenced by such Western intellectual currents as Dada, German expressionism, and surrealism, which explored the Freudian unconscious. Particularly influential was Antonin Artaud–who had himself been inspired by traditional Asian disciplines to propose a “theater of cruelty” liberated from the tyranny of a written text.

Probably most important, though, was the inspiration Hijikata drew from his upbringing in rural northern Japan, the region farthest removed from the various cultural influences that had passed into southern Japan by way of the Korean strait over several centuries. Here could be found the strongest remnants of Japan’s ancient traditions of nature and animistic worship, obscured in other regions by Western influence and by centuries of Chinese-derived Confucianism and Buddhism. In the north, Hijikata felt, people still lived in an intimate relationship with nature, and here could be a source for the revivification of Japanese culture.

Working in Tokyo, Hijikata formed a tight-knit company and developed an anarchic, explosively inventive style of dance theater, exploring the very regions of the unconscious that the modern industrialized world tends to prudishly avoid. The subject matter was often violent and sexual, and sometimes conventional dance technique was ignored. The dancers, often performing nearly naked and without musical accompaniment, enacted ritualistic, darkly lyrical scenarios; the goal was spiritual catharsis for performers and audience alike.

As the butoh movement gained momentum through the 60s and 70s, many of Hijikata’s students left to form their own companies. Butoh diversified; some practitioners turned toward quieter, more reflective styles, though they still embraced the irrational. Hijikata, meanwhile, gradually refined his art into a codified discipline, with a notational system that he aimed to pass on to his students–a task only partly completed at the time of his death, in 1985.

Among those students was Natsu Nakajima, who this weekend will be the first Japanese butoh artist to perform in Chicago. Nakajima, who also grew up in northern Japan, has been in residency for five weeks at Randolph Street Gallery, where this weekend she will lead workshop participants in four performances of her work in progress, Toward Diane Arbus. Though her work differs from Hijikata’s in many respects–“I wanted to express in my own work my feminine side,” she explains–Nakajima nonetheless describes her apprenticeship with him as pivotal.

In basic butoh training, the performer learns to become an empty vessel. Movement and gestures come not from without but from within: the apprentice learns to take on the identity of a chicken, a tree, or a stone. “Hijikata told us to be anonymous,” Nakajima explains. “Of course, to be anonymous is a very oriental idea. And the first step is to be nothing, to throw away our daily identity. In dancing, the body is moving. Not Natsu Nakajima–I got from society this identity.”

In butoh, recovering the natural self–with all its social and political implications–is a central concern; codified systems of movement and discipline are just a means to this end. The emphasis on anonymity results in a discovery of the performer’s true individuality, because by setting aside her artificial social identity and allowing the universe–people, animals, inanimate objects–to speak and live through her, the performer gradually finds which “occupants” her body favors over others.

Butoh tends to avoid literal narrative and the deceptive conceptualizations of language. As Nakajima has written: “The gestures do not tell a story but evoke associations–to explain a movement is to undermine its meaning.”

Nakajima emphasizes that what she’s been working on with Chicago workshop participants is a rough work in progress. “For creation we need time,” she says. “In my case–at least when I do a new creation–it takes one year. But this time, less than three weeks! And so now, for me, it is the most hard work in my life. And students also didn’t know about butoh. I would like to teach more slowly, but I need to push them for the performances. This was a very difficult point between us. I had to push them, but also I can understand. And I agree with them.

“You know, with Hijikata’s system, we need full education, we need more time. Not just theater activity, dancing, but also humanity, character–very traditional things. So anyway, this is not my perfect butoh performance at all. But the students are very optimistic,” she laughs.

Toward Diane Arbus will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 and 8 at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee; tickets are $8-$10. Call 666-7737 for information or reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.