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In his performance, A Story of Smallpox (1972), Tatsumi Hijikata slowly convulses across the stage while his limbs twitch and trace the air—this butoh dance style that Hijikata founded translates literally to “the dance of darkness.” Adapting the style of Noh, a dance theater that dramatizing Japanese folklore, Hijikata keeps the slow precision but strips away the masks and ceremonial dress until his own vulnerable body is on display, often in rags on a spare stage. This stripping away might seem nihilistic at first, but Nonaka-Hill offers enough archival material to help viewers situate the dance in a post-war Japanese art world and suggest how butoh might offer a way through darkness rather than be overwhelmed by it.
The Smallpox video installation is projected onto a sheet in the middle of the eastern room of the gallery, and surrounding ephemera (posters, brochures, photographs, photocopied journals) help viewers trace Hijikata’s influences. Photocopies of Hijikata’s early journals show work by Egon Schiele and Willem de Kooning, while acupuncture diagrams by Genpei Akasegawa evoke butoh’s resonance with the bodily philosophies of the I Ching. Bright, punchy posters by Tadanori Yokoo, an artist who combined Japanese folk imagery with Western pop art, give a record of Hijikata’s dance performances as well as insist on Hijikata’s purpose: to integrate Western and Eastern influences into a new aesthetic.
Where this gallery circles around Hijikata’s influences, the next is more solemn in tone, focusing on his collaboration with Eikoh Hosoe, an experimental photographer that he befriended during his first butoh performance. Crisp, surreal images of Hijikata jumping through rice fields or provoking villagers offer a glimpse into Hijikata’s travels to the rural Tohoku region of Japan, a pilgrimage through his homeland to find inspiration for his work. Images like Kamaitachi #41 (1968/2013) and Kamaitachi #17 (1965/2007) capture the dancer mid-flight, tattered clothes and a cluster of curious children in his wake. While Hosoe at times directed Hijikata to impersonate a devilish kamaitachi (a demon of Japanese folklore), it’s impossible in these images to tell when exactly the character is being evoked—which, of course, is the point: Hijikata is both dancer and trickster, stirring up dust while dancing through the landscapes that formed him.
In Navel and A-Bomb (1960), Hosoe’s film cuts between Hijikata’s choreography, the detonation of atomic bombs, and a wounded bird struggling to fly. Perhaps butoh finds its power in contrasting images like these: not by masking the wounds of the past but by dramatizing them in a body of work that searches for a way forward.
Tatsumi Hijikata and Eikoh Hosoe: Collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata run from October 12–November 30, 2019 at Nonaka-Hill (720 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038).