Originating after World War II as an act of resistance to the Japanese government, Westernization, traditional gender and sexual norms, plus conventional dance techniques, butoh is a Japanese hybrid dance form known for its taboo and fraught depictions of humanity. Butoh performances have a reputation for extreme physical endurance and powerful imagery that is both grotesque and profoundly beautiful.
Fast-forward five decades to modern-day Chicago, where butoh Chicago founder, dancer and artist-at-large Sara Zalekalong with fellow performer Holly Chernobyl and their post-butoh cohortsstage a monthlong festival of workshops, films and performances. Now in its third year, the Post-butoh Festival occurs each weekend in April in non-traditional venues across the city. Zalek coined the term "post-butoh" to honor the lineage of the form but refers specifically to the next generation of practitioners. In an interview with Windy City Times, Zalek described this new wave of artists as "pursuing the form further into unexplored or re-re-explored areas in contemporary art practice, politics, and social networks." Chernobyl and Zalek discussed their genesis with butoh, its inherent queerness and how butoh finds a home within the Chicago dance community.
"Who doesn't love an exaggeration?" asked Holly Chernobyl when asked how she began to study butoh. Chernobyl has always been interested in performative representations of transgression; even before she began studying butoh, her work often centered around the body and issues of sexuality. With a background in theater, she began her performance career in the Pacific Northwest creating vaudevillian-style performances as a "one-woman disaster character" peppered with a little obscene comedy, poetry and song. She eventually began working in puppetry with Seattle's notoriously twisted Monkey Wrench Puppet Lab, which has roots in bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theater.
At that time, Chernobyl was aware of butoh and was attracted to its characteristically dramatic aesthetic, but was wary of it as a practice due to concerns related to cultural appropriation and Japanese fetisization. It wasn't until years later when an admired artist friend encouraged her to investigate butoh that she fell in love with the form. Chernobyl has now been studying butoh and creating performance work under that umbrella for the past six years. Perhaps her most influential teacher is Ken Mai, a Finland-based butoh artist whose work is featured with Chernobyl's April 29 at the Japanese Culture Center. Her performance pieces maintain the earlier comedic elements but now more frequently explore the "precipice of crisis" and toe the lines between horror and comedy, attraction and repulsion.
Zalek came to butoh more intuitively. She had been making her own rigorous, "fantastical," body-based performance art work for years when, in 2005, a friend asked if she had ever seen butoh. Zalek began to investigate the form and quickly realized that many of the concepts housed in butoh aligned with the ideas that she was already exploring and wanted to develop further. She was attracted to butoh because of its deep roots in and of the body and "it offers an element of danger that dance doesn't usually have."
"I've always considered myself a collager of experimental arts," Zalek said. Indeed, Zalek ( a 2015 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist ) has an impressive and unconventional resume whose credits include everything from dancer, writer, and vocalist to producer, teacher, and administrator. Not the sort of person who waits for others to make opportunities happen, Zalek took it upon herself to help bring international butoh artists to Chicago as a way to support those artists, continue her own training and expose fellow dance and performance artists and audiences to this incredible work. Thus began the first Post-butoh Festival in 2014 and the advent of butoh Chicago, an organization dedicated to growing the butoh community in Chicago through research, workshops and performances.
In a city that tends to draw strict lines between what is considered dance, performance art and theater, some say it is a feather in Chicago's dance cap that it is also recognized as a welcome hub for experimental butoh in the United States. There is no doubt that Zalek and her community of collaborators ( especially this year's co-curator, Rebecca Ladida of the In/habit roving art series, and Antibody Corporation as fiscal sponsor ) has helped garner this positive international reputation for Chicago.
And to make it even better, "We are all a bunch of queerios!" said Chernobyl with a laugh. "Sexuality has always played a major role in butoh. Gender fluidity is a real value in the form." Indeed, the portrayal of human experience, unconfined by gender binaries, is one of the most thrilling and poignant aspects of butoh. Depictions of vulnerability and strength within the body combined with a spirit of defiance and opposition make this work incredibly well-suited to reflect the struggles of our current cultural climate.
"Transgression is queer. Resistance is queer. It's important to engage in problematic art forms," Chernobyl said. For those who have yet to engage with such forms in Chicago, now's their chance.
For a complete line-up of remaining weeks of the Post-Butoh Festival, plus tickets and workshop registration, visit ButohChicago.com .