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In Conversation with ButohOUT! Festival’s Yumi Umiumare

Highlighting the lightness of Butoh, we speak to Yumi Umiumare about her exploration of the art form through characters, colour and drama, and how participants in her upcoming ButohOUT! Festival workshops can contribute to her idiosyncratic performances.

Formed in 1950s Japan, Butoh emerged from the shadow cast over the country by WWII. As a dance form so closely tied with the trauma of that time, how has it evolved into the 21st century?

To answer this question would take three books to write! Over the last 60 to 70 years there have been so many companies and individuals who have developed and created different forms of Butoh. There are so many styles in Butoh. One of the main philosophies of Butoh is to capture one’s own authentic being and vocabulary of movements, so all of the individual Butoh artists explore their own styles. Some have kept to ‘traditional’ styles, and others have adapted their own versions. Personally speaking, I find certain movements and energy are stronger to watch, when the performers dance from their strong passion and drives, including social / personal trauma or irresistible drama in their bodies.

Your own place in the world of Butoh is one that occupies a more playful sounding space, through a term you’ve coined as ‘Butoh Cabaret’. How do you bring these two disciplines together?

Even though Butoh was originally called ‘Dance of Darkness’, in order to see the darkness, we all need to see the light and essence of lightness. The style of the company I was working with in Japan, DaiRakudakan, was very dramatic, colourful and spectacular, which I liked very much. I’m also personally interested in dramaturgical structures and even characters in Butoh. So Butoh Cabaret has been an exciting evolution in which I can explore my cultural identities. In retrospect, I think I’ve worked through my own darkness, including my disorientation and sense of loss through migration, which became my Butoh Cabaret DasSHOKU Series – cross cultural Butoh Cabaret.

A large part of the upcoming ‘ButohOUT! Festival’ is the public workshops – four of them in all. As the festival’s creator, why have you decided to place so much importance on these collaborative opportunities, instead of a more performance focused program?

Takashi Takiguchi, co-producer of the festival and I created the performance focused program / mini festival last year, called ‘Evocation of Butoh’, which was part of Asia TOPA. As our longer-term vision, we would like to continue the biennial programs – one focusing on performance, inviting artists from overseas – and the other focusing on the process and fostering of local communities. This is ButohOUT!

The workshops have a huge amount of range, both in terms of scope and content – from a six-week laboratory to a one-day workshop, plus a children and families drop-in workshop. What can the children expect to learn about Butoh and dance from that session?

Yeah, we were ambitious trying to cover lots of people, as one of the themes of this festival is ‘inclusiveness’. In Butoh, we say that we cannot beat against the strong being of children and animals, as they are so natural in their authentic being. Movements of children are so amazing to watch, in fact, my best Butoh teacher is my five-year-old niece, who is truly authentic in her being. She is so energetic and an incredible dancer to watch! In this workshop we will channel the playful part of Butoh, exploring some elements of absurdity and fun through dancing and moving.

Those who take part in the six-week laboratory workshop will also take part in the ButohOUT! Festival performance season, presenting solo and group work created during that period. Do attendees need to have background in dance to participate?

It is not necessary for participants to have a dance background and it is not compulsory to perform at the end of the workshop process. Some may just want to participate in the workshop, not the performance.

This will be focusing on ‘inclusiveness’ so we will be welcoming all sorts of people from diverse cultural backgrounds and both arts and non-arts practices. However, we will still seek the level of artistic competency and innovation through our workshops – questioning idiosyncratic interpretation of Butoh and beyond.

Tell us about your workshop collaborators Tony Yap and Agung Gunawan. How do your practices diverge, and what will they each bring to the learning experience?

Tony and I have been collaborating for the last 20 years and we also organized the ‘Beyond Butoh’ mini festival in Melbourne between 2002 and 2008. Even though Tony’s focus is now more Asian shamanistic dance and trance dance, we have shared lots of similarities alongside our differences through our past performance making, questioning an idiosyncratic interpretation of Butoh. As Takashi and I wanted to question ‘What is the spirit of Butoh?’ we decided to invite Tony to be a facilitator of the workshop and laboratory process, as well as Indonesian dancer Agung Gunawan, whom I’ve known for more than 15 years. Taka has collaborated intensively with Agung over the last few years. Although Agung has never practiced Butoh, we have witnessed indirect connections and strong similarity between Agung’s dance and Butoh.

As well as taking place inside traditional performance spaces, ButohOUT! will explore the Convent grounds. How important is environment to Butoh and how will it influence the performances?

The subtitle of ButohOUT! is The Body-Our Closest Nature. Yes, the relationship between body and landscape is one of the most essential elements in this festival. We tend to think that we can only find nature in bush or landscape, but the idea we’d like to get back to is that nature is ourselves, our body, which can be very powerful and mysterious. The outdoor spaces around the Convent will be able to provide the actual elements of landscape rather than only being philosophical. I also believe these elements will be able to give us unexpected and ‘untamed’ features.

Do you have more performance plans for 2018?

I have several occasions to perform my PopUp Tearoom Series, in which I explore ritual, magic and the invisible. I have plans for collaborative performances with Japanese musicians in June and also ritual performances in few locations in Japan, working with American Indian shaman.