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September 13, 1987|SAM JAMESON | Jameson is The Times' Tokyo bureau chief.

Natsu Nakajima, head of Tokyo's Muteki-sha dance troupe, recalls that when butoh first won attention in that city in 1959, "it was considered crazy and beggar-like." Now, she says, the avant-garde dance form is finally promising to establish roots in Japan. But it had to go overseas to nourish these roots.

"As a result of the high evaluation butoh has received abroad, only this year have Japanese reached the stage of opening the gates to it," says Nakajima, who will perform, direct and choreograph her own production, "Niwa" ("Garden"), three times at the Japan America Theatre on Friday and Saturday during the Los Angeles Festival.

For Nakajima and most of the 100 or so other performers in Japan, butoh has been a personal commitment, to the point that they have had to finance their own performances out of savings from other jobs. "It wasn't until I went overseas that I first got paid for performing," Nakajima says.

There are only three major butoh groups--Sankaijuku, Byakkosha and Dai Rakuda Kan--with about 50 dancers in all. Another 50 soloists and dancers belong to small groups, like Nakajima's Muteki-sha. But butoh has won such rave notices overseas that more foreigners than Japanese are now studying under its Japanese masters, Nakajima says.

One troupe has 30 foreign students, compared with only five Japanese. Nakajima's own "troupe" consists of only herself and one other regular dancer. But five European stage actresses are studying with her.

Nakajima, 44, is the first female disciple of the late Tatsumi Hijikata, the new dance form's founder, and Kazuo Ono, a collaborator of Hijikata.

Nakajima started dancing lessons as a child, partly because children, even in the poverty of the postwar days, customarily took some kind of out-of-school cultural lessons, and partly because of "the influence of my mother," she recalls.

"My mother liked Japanese traditional dance. She was trained in playing the samisen (a stringed instrument that is plucked) from age 3," Nakajima says. "If she hadn't married my father, she might have been a professional samisen player."

Nakajima's father, a civil servant who worked for the National Forestry Agency, was born on Sakhalin. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took over the territory and the family was evacuated to the northeast region of Japan, where her grandfather had been born. She was 2 at the time and does not remember the muteki (foghorn)of the boat that brought her to Japan, she says.

She uses a foghorn in "Niwa," however, as a symbol of that experience. It was in poetic reference to the evacuation that her teacher, Hijikata, named her group Muteki-sha when she established it in 1969, she says.

Nakajima studied American modern dance for three years, "but I just didn't get a feeling for it. It was very physical, geometrical, almost gymnastic. But the kind of dancing I was looking for was something of the heart. It was then, when I was in high school, that I saw Tatsumi Hijikata's debut."

That was 1959, when Hijikata, with the late Yukio Mishima, the novelist-playwright, staged Mishima's novel, "Forbidden Colors," as a new form of art-- ankoku butoh . Although the word butoh simply means dance , the art form came to be known by only that word. (Traditional Japanese dance, by contrast, is called buyo .)

"Forbidden Colors" was a product of what Nakajima called the "first stage of avant-garde" artists in Japan.

"But to seek a deeper development of dance," Hijikata set himself apart from established avant-garde groups and started his own school of dance. All of Japan's butoh dancers trace their origins to him, Nakajima notes.

Over the opposition of her parents, Nakajima became his disciple and studied in a school run by his collaborator, Ono. Today, Nakajima ranks as the longest-performing of any of the butoh creator's followers.

It was after studying classical, Spanish and modern dancing as well as Japanese traditional dancing and finding them all "unsuitable to the body of Japanese people" that Hijikata created butoh, he once said.

For example, critics have written, Japanese bowleggedness, the result of a now largely extinct life style on tatami (straw mats)without chairs fits the squatting that is one hallmark of butoh dancing. Nakajima herself stood and put her legs together to show that, yes, she too is bow-legged, unlike most younger Japanese.

"When I was learning modern dance and attempting to copy Western forms, I practiced extending my legs every day, wondering, 'What meaning is there in this?' It doesn't match the physical characteristics of the Japanese body.

"Japanese have small legs. Trying to extend them by a few centimeters is not beauty.

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