Interview with Min Tanaka
Art Quarterly has been published in New York “Theme” request for Fall 2006
4 August, 2006, 8:00 to 9:30 pm after dinner, at the Body Weather Farm, Hakushu, Yamanashiken, Japan. (Min Tanaka answered the questions, the magazine editor sent him by e-mail and aurally posed by Kazue Kobata (his long-time collaborator for international activities), in front of some 50 young people gathered at the farm in preparation for the annual multi-art festival Dance Hakushu, which he started in 1988 with a dozen fellow artists, architects, producers. The audience also included about 25 students of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music who attended Min Tanaka’s intensive workshop for creative body practice.)
Q—What was your first memory of what it felt like to dance?
A—I don’t remember. I was told perhaps when I was about 5 or 6 years old that I had danced around 3 years of age, but I don’t remember for it was before I had conscious memory. The other day I saw a picture of mine, 2 years and a half old, and I had a bandage on my leg. Then I recalled the experience of being injured. But as for dancing, it is beyond memory.
Q—You started dancing Bon-Odori when you were eight. What was it about this
dance that got you excited about dancing? Can you describe this dance?
A— Bon-Odori is what we dance in mid summer when in Buddhism we believe our
ancestors come back to earth. We dance with them. In Nishimonai District in Akita they have a typical formation for their Bon-Odori. They dance in a circle and they say there is always a spirit between dancers. It is the prototype. As for me, I think I was going to Bon-Odori long before age 8, I was told, though I don’t remember myself. What mad me excited? That is exactly what I want to know. That is why I am dancing still now. You know the restless feeling, the sizzling, when you fall in love, or when you are enchanted by something. We say in Japanese, chi ga sawagu, my blood is boiling…You hear the festival music, drums and flutes, and you can stay still…I went there alone. Luckily I was being bullied then by the neighborhood kids. So I escaped them and ran. I took back alleys so that nobody could stop me.
Later, Tatsumi Hijikata told me that he, as a child, also would go to Bon-Odori dashing on the footpath through rice paddies. He ran in a low posture, bent forward, so that long rice plants would make him invisible.
At the Bon-Odori site I didn’t meet any kids or friends. In those days it was for grownups while nowadays many kids join.
Q—What did you parents think of you dancing? Your father was a great Kendoist.
Didn’t he want you to do kendo instead?
A—My father was seldom at home. He was not a Kendoist. He was a policeman and was
good at shooting. I remember going once to a shooting competition of the police academy where he was a contestant. He was the champion. My mother would go to Bon-Odori so they knew I would go dancing there. But they didn’t say anything about it. My father never told me to take up Kendo or any martial art. He was not so good at Kendo. He would intimidate his opponents, in Kendo, but was not strong.
Q—First you started with modern European dance, then ballet, then moved onto
butoh. How are they different?
A— I think it is wrong to make such a distinction as Mondern Dance, Classical Ballet AND
Butoh. Butoh goes beyond that dimension. You know what modern European dance is and what classical ballet is. You know why he called what he tried to ndo as Buroh? He fundamentally wanted to declare that what he was pursuing was completely different from other kinds of dance. Conventionally, the Japanese word Buyo or Nihon Buyo referred to the traditional Japanese dance, and the Western dance, after it was introduced to Japan, was labeled as Western Dance, Seiyo Buyo. Butoh was none of them and he wanted to call it differently. At that time he did not show a model for Butoh. He didn’t show such and such movement, gesture or style is Butoh. The main point was to declare “We ARE different, “
not “What we DO is different.” This is what he said about the appellation.
Q—Many of our readers will be unfamiliar with butoh. Could you explain what
butoh is in the simplest terms?
A—I don’t think you have to know. In early 20th Century Western dance came to Japan very rapidly. About two decades later, Hijikata wondered about its aesthetics, and questioned if movement is the essence of Butoh. He was skeptical about the then prevailing concept of dance, and that is why he sought another name. I think the best way to describe what Butoh is is that it is a name for an activity, not dance itself. So Hijikata’s Budtoh is a result of a new way of thinking, new kinds of activities. He would often say something is Butoh-teki, Butoh-like. “Look, isn’t he Butoh-teki ? ” Or looking at a dog, “You see, this dog is Butoh!” He would find essence of Butoh even in non-human creatures including plants.
Movement, technique, and kata, form, are merely a part of dance but not all. I prefer using the term dance (even in Japanese), and for dance I think movement and other such elements account for only a half of it. There has to be the other half, accompanying them. One may call it “dance substance, ” and that sizzling, restless feeling I had as a child is an essential part of the other half. Endless speculations can be made of it. Shinobu Origuchi, an ethnologist, says Odori (dance) could be Otoko-dori (getting a man) or Oto-dori (getting sound).
Physical movement is essential also in sports, and these days some athletes quite conscious of aesthetics. Than what is the unique element of dance? What make dance as dance, aside from physical movement and gestures? It is invisible. Dance consists of things invisible as well as visible. When you see several dancers engaged in the same movement, you know easily which one is better or the best. What is the yardstick for distinction? You find a particular smell, taste, aura, or ethos in one dancer but not in another. You may say he or she has odori-gokoro ( dance ethos), but it is not visible. One can grasp it.
So the audience matters. A bad audience can corrupt dance. Dancers know the importance of this elelment, of aura or kokoro (ethos). But it is not something you can develop or nurture in the studio without audience. Then how can one let it evolove? Most dancers have given up looking for a way to do it.
Q—You had a weak body as a child, no?
A—I was born as a premature child. Very small, about 1000 grams, possible to be held on my father’s palm, I was told. I was born so too early because my mother was shocked by the US air raid on Tokyo on March 10, 1945, my birthday. I was the smallest in class till age 14.
Q—Do you think overcoming your physical weakness was a motivation in your
A—No. I had started sports activities, basketball, before going onto dance. Rather, after starting dancing, I did like it that my body was athletically trained and robust. So it was in my late teems, after going through sports, that I decided to plunge in art.
Q—Coincidentally, many butoh dances depict movements that represent people
with physical handicaps. Why do you think this is?
A—I think there is a grave misunderstanding behind this question. Initially Hijikata observed and collected all kinds of human gestures, actual movement and form of human bodies. First a lot of them came from workers and craftsmen. Carpenters, their had movements…. Then came old people, farmers, all kinds of people at work. He would say, if you are using the same tool all the time, you cannot do certain things. You cannot stretch your fingers like a ballet dancer, for example. To define the hand expression of a ballet dancer aesthetic and that of a worker ugly—this is just too arbitrary, he would say.
Adopting handicaps into choreography….at least when he was active, he did not do that, and that was not his formula. But for those who take Butoh as a style or a school of dance, those elements that do not fit widely accepted aesthetics may be perceived as resembling handicaps or as something out of norms. As long as you perceive Butoh just as another category of dance, then one may find that aspect as something adopted from handicapped people.
A handicap is a natural phenomenon. Hijikata once talked about something very important. Old people’s hand-dementia, te-boke. An old man stretches his hand forwards, for a certain purpose or to do something. But a second later he forgets the purpose. His hand, initially stretched towards a glass, loses a purpose. It may come backward or move about ambiguously. That is old man’s hand-dementia. And he said it may be pure dance. It does not embody a purpose. It comes on the way to reaching the purpose, or in the process leading to it. It may repeat itself, may be trapped in sideways one after the other…and there one may find a secret of dance.
Q—Is art and life connected? Butoh started in 1960s, some say as a response to
the colonization of Japan by the West and as as a reaction to the
frustration of living in post World War II Japan. Thoughts?
A— Do you mean they may not be connected? Impossible. When I dance, it is an act of
shooting an arrow to myself in the stage following the dance. In the everyday life awaiting me after that act. I dance because I believe I can furnish something for the time in the next stage. In this sense, dancing is purely art. All too often, dancers say, it is done, I feel refreshed…but then isn’t it like sports? You move to the utmost, you sweat, and say, I feel good! But it is only one aspect of dancing. If that’s what dance is about, silly!
AS for the second part of the question, in Hijikata’s case, it was not frustration but perhaps desperation about the fact that inherent elements of the people around him—their physicality above all—were being extinguished rapidly. The West or USA, was something he could not reconcile with till the end. He would not apply for a passport, not go abroad, even though when I invited him to go to US with me, he fancied dancing with the black guys in Harlem, New York, but maybe he did not really mean it.
But it was not out of nationalism. It had more to do with his generation or the period he was born and grew up in. His situation. He had something to do, and was doing it intact. It was not necessary to look around. In his own work and activities, he was inspired by Turner, Francis Bacon, Blaque, and by numerous poets from the West. He adapted their inspiration in his work. No one else in the same generation was so learned and had such deep insight in Western art. Antonin Artaud, in particular, was a big influence.
You know the society has set a demarcation between sanity and insanity of human psyche. It is dictated by the present capacity and status of the given society. If the capacity of a given society changes, the dividing line will also move. The public image of what is same and what is insane vaccilates. But in this regard, Hijikata on many occasions confirmed with me, “You would not go to the other side, would you?” “Min, would you go? No, you will remain on this side.” He also used to say “Human beings chose to be flesh-based, instead of bone-based.” A very important perception. He copied by hand many parts of Artaud’s texts, like people used to copy Buddhist sutras. Not only Artaud but Jean Genet was also quite important.
Q—You were thrown out of the Modern Dance Association. Tell us why? Describe
the performance that got your thrown out.
A—I danced naked. It was around 1972 and I was still a member of a modern dance company.
Q—You’ve said in the past that you consider Tatsumi Hijikata to be the father
of butoh. How has Hijikata influenced you? Describe his dance for us.
A— So far in this interview, when I answered your questions, I would often imagine first
how Hijikata would reply. So I am under his influence to that extent. I am not sure if he is a father. But if anything, he is crucial with respect to dance at large, not just Butoh. He was not an easy person as a company or to get along with socially. But his thorough commitment to dance, his attitude to face it with overwhelming power is beyond respect, admiration.
I first saw his dance work “Revolt of Flesh” (1969?) and I was merely in my early 20’s. I was utterly inspired, I marveled, and admired him. But I did not go to him to study. I knew I would be swallowed by him completely. To study dance with him? To learn something from him? I wondered if that was what I wanted to do. No. I admired him and his dance, and wondered what would make one so strong a being in dancing. Even if I danced ikn the same way, I would not be such a strong being. It was clear. So learning how to dance was not the point,
It is the same as for a painter, learning how to paint like Van Goch is not the answer. You may be moved by his painting, but you don’t wish to paint like he did. It is the same in dance. But many dancers go to a great dancer to learn how to dance in the same way as he/she. Seeing a dancer, one can often tell who is his/her teacher. That is wrong. Does a true master teaches his disciple how to dance like himself? I wanted to learn from Hijikata how I can be as marvelous a being as him in dancing. It was not a question of do this or that to become great. So I did not go to him. I knew it was not the answer.
Q—Why are you attracted to butoh?
A— I hope I have been speaking about it all the way through.
Q—Would you agree with this statement: Butoh is the interplay between light
and dark, of the ying and the yang of life?
A— In general, we say “in a spot light” or “I have been underground,” or “ I am depressed.”
As such it is not just in Butoh that the two are involved in all forms of being and living, We just paraphrase the coexistence. We are each sources of light as well. So we are not just passively receiving or not receiving light. I am not interested in this simple question,
In Indonesia a day starts in the evening, they say. Sleep is something that they go through at mid-day, while for us it come at the end of the day in preparation for a new day.
A big difference.
Q—You spent many years researching and studying dance in order to form your
own dance. Have you found this dance? What does it look like?
A— To be honest, I don’t need “my own dance.” Is there anything as such? I can live without
it or I can remain a dancer without it. But this body is me, and dancing is what this body and mind do, so I say “my dance.” But it is not “my dance” as a proprietary property. One may just say “the dance of such and such date.” What I like to see in the future is to be anonymous. Instead of saying “my dance,” I am dreaming of becoming Mr. Nobody. I am trying to change the style of my activities so that it will be unnecessary to declare I am Min Tanaka, a dancer.
If your point is about how original I am as a dancer, compared to such predecessors as Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, I don’t care. As long as I can dance, even if what I do is not genuinely true dance, I am satisfied. When I dance, do I expect to inspire someone in the audience to dance? Not necessarily. He or she may sing, paint….and dance for me is something like that. It may be something like a physical matter. A substance. Otherwise we will just see more and more people start dancing. That is not what dance is aiming at!
Economically, increasing disciples, dancers, and audience may be deemed good and we tend to think in terms of homogeneous increase in volume. But what I want to see happen is quite the opposite. Since a year ago I have tried to stay away from the theater or a venue dedicated to a performance, and to dance anywhere and any time I feel like dancing. No date and time fixed, no posters nor flyers. I am interested to know if one can dance whenever one wants to.
Q—What is the inspiration for your dance? Does it start with an idea, a song,
a movement, an image?
A—That’s not enough. There are whole a lot more elements—something someone says, certain incidents, human and non-human elements.
Q—Describe some of your favorite performances in the past. Do your audience
sit quiet and observe or do they participate?
A— It depends and there are great differences depending on the place, occasion and time.
There have been too many variations to explain. For instance, prior to the Velvet Revolution in Prague, hiding from the secret police, I was dancing in front of people who ventured to come. The relationship between the audience and myself then. Can you imagine it? A variety of such clandestine experience. Or in a theater in Tokyo, where money can buy you a chance, you gossip around in the foyer…. Big difference. A clandestine performance in Moscow in the last days of Gorbachev’s regime, the theater is crumbling and the people are shivering…. If you know my activities well enough, this question sounds rather slippery.
Regarding the latter half of the questions. To be blunt, I think I can change, though the way I dance, the audience’s state of mind. But I don’t want do so with a predetermined scheme. I would rather see their spontaneous change. But it is hard to encounter truly independent, autonomous audience. They too are influenced by what is in fashion. They look around, cling to preconceived criteria, or intake what is supposed to be hip. Audience behavior and their responsibility is an important theme and worth a delving search.
Q—How much of your dance is choreographed and how much is improvisational?
A— Assuming you are asking about solo dance, nothing is choreographed. No concrete
movement is predetermined or composed. The progression of the dance is not preconceived either. It is more interesting a challenge whether, before starting, I can be completely blank-minded. Ideally, as I am now, a tabula rassa. After the dance, if I don’t remember what I did, that’s ideal. But it si different from a state of trans. I am talking about a solo performance in a theater situation.
But there are other cases. When I dance in a particular place, with a certain genius loci, like the Memorial Flower Garden designed by Kenji Miyazawa (a Japanese poet/writer of early 20th Century) where I will dance in a month, I will fill myself with as much information and feeling about him as I can. Then let myself do what I can. But it is not choreography. What sort of a person I want to be when I dance there—that is the essential question.
Q—You started a farm in Hakushu, in the Yamanashi prefecture in 1985 and
recently bought another farm in Indonesia. Do you use the farm to train
yourself ond other dancers? Or is it just a farm?
A—A critical misinformation. I have not bought a farm in Indonesia. It is a huge rain forest in equatorial Indonesia, and it will be leased to us by the Indonesian government for a movement or project for perpetual conservation. As for the farm here, Hakush in central Japan, we own nothing. We are borrowing the houses and land. If the landlords demand we return them, we must do so the next day. It is an important prerequisite that we don’t possess. We don’t want to. It is a kind of social movement. Here, as in many other rural regions, people are aging and more and more land is abandoned and not cultivated. So we first tried to gain their trust and asked them to let us work on their land.
Why did I choose to star a farm to begin with? I was working with many young dancers. They were working for money also in construction, part-time jobs…we got together for dance activities at odd times, but they were exhausted and always some people were missing because of jobs. So we thought if we started a farm together, we can work, practice, an d live together. Farming is a hard work, people say, then it must be good for the body. If we could supply enough food to feed ourselves, we could be self-sufficient to an extent.
Q—Is farming related to dance?
A— Conceptually, yes. In almost every culture and civilization, dance was born out of
agricultural life. I don’t know how dance was conceived and nurtured prior to the agrarian period. How it was triggered, engendered, and imagined? But in terms of art history, yes, agriculture is at the basis of dancem, I believe, in Africa, Asia, Americas….and yes, we wanted to stand at the original point.
Farm work in a creative sense is closely connected with dance. That our body is exposed to the outside environment, to wind, light, heat…is in itself a creative factor. It is clearly different from farm work as a means of rational production. But initially on the ancient earth, human bodies were exposed to natural conditions that were geologically and meteorologically affected, and even subterrainian magma was felt. Then human body was in touch with those conditions much more intensely…some hundreds or thousands of times more perhapls…So as farmers we thought our body will vibrate with or shocked by such phenomena, or be in rapport with them deep inside ourselves. Dance came about through such relations, we imagined. A place like this is, in this sense, an archetypal landscape for dancers.
So there was an economical and pragmatic merit, but also a creative value in being exposed to and a part of natural process of reproduction. The whole process may be called dance.
Q—What do the residents of the small community of Hakushu think about your
A—I recommend you come to Halushu and interview people.
Q—What is Body Weather Farm?
A—I wish no part of these long answers be deleted. Let’s confirm it.
Simply put, Body Weather is a notion of omni-centrality. Contingency as well. “I” is not the center. The center is everywhere. To make something between a person and another. “I am….” Does not come first always. It can be, it is a viable notion. But it may drift around be identified with someone else or some other thing. This is true about human relations, meteorological phenomena, the sun, animals, and almost everything around us. A weather like contingent and ever-changing relationship.
We brought forth this concept in 1977, founded the Body Weather Laboratory in 78, and when we opened the farm here we named it Body Weather Farm.
Q—How do you transition between your performance world and your
non-performance world? Is it easy?
A—I hope you know the history of performance—performance as an announced deliberate act in a theater. Theater is a fairly recent invention in human history, and what is presented there, in terms of dance per se, is merely 1% or less of all dance practiced by humanity. So I am not interested in answering this stifle question.
Q—How do you feel before you perform and after you perform?
A—I answered this already. To dance is for me to shoot an arrow to myself in the stage coming right after the dance. How can I affect myself in the next moment….
Q—And what are you thinking while you perform? Do you see the audience?
A—I like best my state of being while dancing. I think I am most alert and smart when I am dancing. That is why I want to c.ontinue dancing. One may say it is an ecstatic state. I can think about many thing at once—what I am doing, what the people in the audience are doing, their state of mind…and more over, I can add my thoughts and intentions to all such elements. Far from trans.
Q—What would you do if can’t dance anymore. Say you were in an accident, how
would transform the energy that motivates you to dance?
A—Come and interview me when it happens. I find this question rather impolite. How can you measure or appraise someone else’s conviction and courage? What criteria do you use?
Q—I’ve seen a picture of one of your performance where you danced naked except
for a wrapped penis. What was your intent behind this costume?
A—Wow, it is a funny description where the penis is occupying an exaggerated space! I wrapped my penis because I was ashamed of showing it. First, I wanted the audience to see the structure of our body. If you wear a costume, the body is always covered, but if you are naked, you can show the movements much more closely. Each body is different and unique—how the hair is grown, the color of the skin,, etc., etc. My body blushes easily and such changes give rise often to preconceived ideas not necessarily relevant to the dance. So in a way I tried to neutralize my body. The penis…the most private part of my body…was wrapped because it was not important for the dance as I sought it.
I applied different hues of brown color to my skin.
Q—Do you ever create a dance for shock value?
Q—Do you still do this performance?
Q—What would you say to someone that they would find this distasteful?
A—I would say it may be, if you thiink so.
Q—Most butoh dancers paint their body white as a sign of erasing one’s ego, to
make a tabula rasa. There is also the symbolic reference to the spirit world
in this color. You paint your body brown. Why?
A—I wonder why the color of our skin and the color of land are so similar. A friend of mine, an editor and writer, Seigow Matsuoka, used to say that our body has all the colors found in the natural world. Indeed…all the colors, inside and outside our body. The skin, more or less, has the color akin to the earth. So I chose to erase my private being by applying the color of the earth to my skin. I use different hues of earth color. Sometimes lighter and other times darker.
Q—A butoh performance is not for every audience, in the same way that not
everyone “gets” modern dance. What kind of person is generally receptive to
watching and enjoying butoh? Do you see a wide range of people in your
performances? Or are they generally artists who tend to be attracted to the
A—It is not a prerequisite for me to have people to buy tickets and come to the theater to see dance. That is why, by necessity, my theater performances are attended by the least number of dancers. There has never been a period when I danced only in theaters. I always danced in other kinds of places and open-air spaces, and from now on I will dande almost entirely in non-theater spaces and environments. That is, from now on, I will not choose my audience, nor will people who will see me dance will see it by choice. They will see it by coincidence. I may dance in the street, unannounced, and most of those who happen to be there may reject my seeing it and go away. I am determined still to dance.
You may be asking this question about dance as a theater-based performance art. But my audience goes beyond that. I dance to an anonymous audience that include even dead people. I don’t think that I would ever be concerned about the type or sort of people in the audience, and be influenced by that information as to what I do or how I dance. For instance, I say I will dance and if there are ten people watching, will that dance be taylor-made for those then? No. Even when dancing in a theater, my consciousness breaks through its walls and extends throughout the world space and time. Or it permeates throughout the widest span of space and time as I can imagine. It is not entertainment. It is not meant to serve a narrow given group of people.
I sometimes dance for somebody who died in the near past—a tribute. Then the notion of the particular person comes into the scene. The way I dance now, sometimes my mother comes inside my body, or in a foreign country, the posture or gesture of an old lady waiting at a traffic light comes in…it happens often, It is a manner to let others pass through my
body, something like what shamans do. I think it is a rather important element of dance. Then, what is me who is dancing? To what extent is it me?
As regards the make-up of painting the body white. It is to do with our yearning to become someone or something else. Metamorphosis. In the early days in Butoh, dancers put plaster or flour mixed with water on their faces and bodies. It gets dried and cracks or peels off in a bizarre manner. It may look grotesque or bizarre. In traditional theater or dance make-up was used for the actor to become the role. So you know whaty you should become, usually a person, the role you play. But in this manner of heavy make-up, you become something other than your private self. But you nor the audience know what you have become.
So the white make-up of Butoh was originally a manifestation of your will to become something else—metamorphosis of no clear destination. It was rough, coarse, and pieces of plaster or flour would peel off. But now, even Butoh make-up is finely done in white. No different from Kabuki. I find no particular significance in it any more.
Finally I hope that you editors see dance in a more multi-strata way and from complex heterogeneous vantage points, rather than being confined in a rigid nomenclature such as Butoh and so forth. Beware that dance as art, performance art in the theater, is a minute fragment of dance in the true sense of the word.