The world of Butoh Dance: Sarah Spain

An Interview with Sarah Spain on the Lost and Wandering Self.

by M.Terence McKay.
(C)McKay Ventures 1996.

TM: Would you say that Butoh is a central theme in the show which opens at the Tapio Gallery, Sapporo on the 17th of June?
SS: It's a major influence. I don't know if it's the theme.
TM: What is it about Butoh that makes you say this?
SS: When I think of Butoh the image that comes to mind is a glowing being amidst all the darkness, an image of softness amidst that which is not so soft in our lives. I'd like to read you what one of the great Butoh masters, Hijikata, sometimes known as the architect of Butoh, once wrote:

We were the dark incarnation of the anger and the laughter of the earth gods and the defiance of the irrational feelings that have been rudely abandoned and suppressed amidst the swift rationalizations and standardization of all aspects of life and especially those aspects of life accompanied by post-war economic development and urbanization.
My Catholic upbringing involved parallel themes of order and discipline which caused me to feel I should abandon or suppress everything that was irrational, disturbing or chaotic in my life.
For me, dancing seemed to set these feelings of darkness free.

I had always loved to dance but I was never free to dance my way. I began studying ballet when I was three years old, and I remember not being allowed to go on stage because I wouldn't put on a tutu. So, at the very young age of three, I got kicked out of ballet. During adolescence, I pursued dance in the form of Reggae. In college, I started to practice jazz and modern dance seriously, using the Martha Graham technique, and I began to study art seriously. But when it came time for the dance performance we were to give that semester, I realized that I was being forced into yet another mold, and I could barely relate to the other dancers. So, I closed the door on dance and concentrated all my energy on print making which I loved, but the printing inks made me ill and I had to give that up too.

Through a creative writing course, I became aware of my need to explore and find balance in my life. A writing instructor told me about a Japanese exchange program and because I found all that was Oriental somewhat threatening and alien, I knew that's where I needed to be. I decided to study Japanese in Japan.

This was in 1980, and when I arrived in Sapporo, Japan I put my best foot forward. I didn't tell anyone I had been an artist at first; I was there to study the language, the culture and the history. Unfortunately, I wasn't getting anywhere on the levels which were important to me. After four months, what was left of my creative energy was nearly extinguished by the many Japanese systems, or as Hijikata would call them "standardizations."

I was really depressed and went to a little cafe one day to figure out what to do. I finally decided that I was going to tell my teacher that I couldn't continue in the exchange program. But on the way out of the cafe, I happened to pick up a flier with the most amazing image on the cover. I couldn't understand it, but I was fascinated with the imagery which turned out to be a photograph of Ichiro Kojima* performing Butoh.

I took the flier to my teacher who translated it for me. "You know, Sarah," she said, "you would like Butoh from what I know of you." The flier made me to stay in Japan long enough to see my first Butoh performance.

The evening of the performance, I literally felt the walls come down between me and the Japanese, between my culture and theirs. I could see right into the souls and the hearts of those people. I knew what they were dancing about, and I cried. I wanted to know how they rehearsed which led me to talk with the dancers and Kojima himself who invited me to practice with the group. Most of his dancers were women who didn't speak any English, so we communicated through body language.

In Tokyo, not long afterwards, a remarkable coincidence occurred. A friend introduced me to a journalist who worked for the Asahi Tribune, and only moments after I had arrived in his office, one of his friends came up to me and said, "Do you practice Butoh?" He was leaving right then to rehearse with Kazuo Ohno*, the other Butoh master, and before I knew it, we were on the train to Yokohama and then hiking up this little hill in the dark to Ohno's studio for a rehearsal that began at 8:00 that evening.

Kazuo Ohno is often referred to as the soul of Butoh.
Practicing with him that night was a very powerful dance experience. He told us to imagine that we were carrying a lantern on the end of a stick; that inside the lantern was the flame of our mother's mother's mother's mother's mother. What were we going to do with that flame?

For me, the flame represented the female sex and feminist issues such as the universal pain of women. It represented good things too, nurturing and domesticity. I also saw myself as keeper or gurdian of the flame. It was up to me to decide if I wasgoing to pass the flame on or not. Did I want to pass it on? There were no rules, just possibilities.

My Catholic upbringing had judged my need for darkness, the very darkness which one explores in Butoh. As a young child, I was not supposed to be in my own little world; it was considered selfish. I was supposed to be selfless. Singing too loud or laughing too loud were great taboos. Being too tired, changing my mind, not keeping promises, being an individual, were also taboo.

The extraordinary experience of Butoh transcended technique and became for me a meditation; and that's how I paint. By holding on to the Butoh images, I began to feel really connected to myself. I may never practice Butoh again, but when I paint I focus all my might on the lost and wandering self I began to discover through Butoh. I have found that my outwardly gregarious nature, trained from Catholic achooling to please and conform, only takes me away from myself. But painting can become a meditation for me. In painting and dancing, I confront some of my fears -- loss of control, loss of innocence, loss of youth and ultimately death -- by integrating them into my work. In a strange way these become my allies. So, through painting, my darkness, can become my light.

There are other influences in my art. A childhood spent on a farm surrounded by Nature has also influenced me. The dark coulds, the calm before the storm, the terrific winds, the rain which soothed my soul -- all the chaos of Nature made me feel alive. I would try to out sing the thunder which for me created the rhythm of the storm and out dance the wind. In a storm, I felt safe; I felt accompanied and never alone. I would swing on my swing set and sing as loud as I could, and the thunder just encouraged me to sing louder. The rain on my face was a baptism, and I worshipped the lightening which set my spirit free.

The Native American sweat lodge has also influenced my work -- the process of entering the lodge, closing the door, sitting in complete darkness and watching and feeling the glowing rocks. There is such a presence of heat and water, it is very elemental. I can see the figures in my paintings as rocks glowing with an inner spirit.

The images for this show were specifically inspired by a Butoh performance which I organized in New Mexico in which we embraced the four elements: earth, air, fire and water, just as I did as a child on the farm, and as an adult in the sweat lodge, and just as I embrace the darkness in Butoh. I have really pushed the color in these images, the dark colors staining the canvas, the bright colors bringing the eye to the canvas surface. For me, the limited palette in these paintings signifies depth.

The subjects of these paintings are dancing with their own taboos. The issues change for each image, and consequently the taboos change. "Homasse" which is French for "masculine woman," reminds me of Clint Eastwood's famous phrase, "Go ahead and make my day!" And that is just what the woman is saying to her personal darkness as she embraces it. "Ether" is another kind of darkness, one saturated with sexuality, jealousy, poison, venom. "The Burning" is about being caught off guard. "Interrogation" asks the question, "Where is one's own flame in the dardk?"

I have to say that Butoh has been my fate, and it has really changed my life. I still don't understand what it is or why or how, but I am obsessed with it and it's images, and I am still searching for the answers. Ohno's instruction to us that night in Yokihama was far more significant than I thought even at the time. I am not just carrying the lantern that holds the flame of my mother's mother's mother. I am the flame; my art is the flame. It is, I hope, elemental. It is also about reclaiming the sacred and the forbidden and honoring the lost and wandering self.

(C)M.Terence McKay 1996
McKay Ventures
Santa Fe, New Mexico
June 1996.

* Kojima: His name is usually spelled and read like that, but he pronounces "Ojima."
* Ohno: The original script was "Ono".
- transcripted into html by kasait.

(C) for Sarah Spain 1996. ITTO