Bodies at the Threshold of the Visible

Photographic butoh

Authored by: Jonathan W. Marshall

The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138691094
eBook ISBN: 9781315536132
Adobe ISBN:


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In her landmark study Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (2005 [1993]), Peggy Phelan argued that performance art exists only in and of its initial enactment. Recordings lack the immediacy, presence and full power of the original. Although critiqued by Philip Auslander (1999), Joel Anderson (2015), and others, Unmarked is worth returning to. Phelan states that bodily “presence is theatre’s promise as well as its doubt, and in this theatre imitates love and its illusions” (121). Whilst Phelan’s suggestion of an opposition between theater and its mediated reproductions is not so commonly articulated today, there has been less consideration of photographic mediation as it applies to dance. As an art form predicated on bodily movement, dance would seem particularly resistant to documentation via still photography (Ewing 1987; Marshall 2008). Yet while Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo were insistent that their practice was a modern form of buyō (dance), much of their early work was closer to performance art and happenings than concert dance. One might posit then that, as in the actions described by Phelan, there is a similar doubtful, erotic “promise” of “presence” which is both evoked and problematized within butoh and its images. As Anderson says of theater, photography functioned within butoh “not as a surrogate” but “as a partner” in which what moves between different stages, frames and images is a doubtful, at times ghost-like presence which is “neither live nor dead” but which oscillates between these poles of life and death (2008, 31–34). Such a fugitive presence is by definition difficult to capture or visualize, in photography or dance. It establishes forms – or their form lessness – in a manner which resists instantiation.

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