Meet Xue, The Butoh Performer Pushing The Boundaries Of Dance

Xue, the butoh artist, choreographer and performer, founded the Singapore Butoh Collective to cultivate awareness and appreciation of the Japanese avant-garde dance form
Xue, the butoh artist, choreographer and performer, founded the Singapore Butoh Collective to cultivate awareness and appreciation of the Japanese avant-garde dance form
Photo: Jonathan Tan

Every issue, GRAZIA Singapore highlights a Game Changer who inspires, educates, and celebrates individuality, beauty and style. This month, we speak to the butoh artist Xue.

Why were you drawn to movement and dance, and to butoh, in particular?
They’re so beautiful. I’m someone who’s very drawn to beauty. If I see something that pleases my eye or aesthetic sensibility, I tend to fall into obsession; I must be in proximity to the source of my attraction. I’m drawn to movement because I like watching things change over time. I’m a big fan of slow cinema; I enjoy
films that behave phenomenologically—the slower and more beautiful, the better.

The first time I encountered butoh was actually through a documentary. I was completely seduced by the aesthetics of it, the painted bodies, the hunched and contorted forms, the deliberate slowness of the movement, the bizarre costumes and facial expressions. The bodies of the dancers appeared to be weeping. It all made complete sense to me. It was the first time that I ever felt close to anything in my life. It was like this thing that had been slumbering deep in my core had been waiting to be recognised, and once I could identify and put a name to it, it came fully alive in my body.

The power of butoh lies in its latent potential to emanate this vortex of sensation, affecting different intensities that ebb and flow over the course of the dance.

How do you conceptualise your projects to convey the ideas you have in mind?
I’m actually not sure if my ideas come before or after the work has been made. You can have all these ideas about things, but the actuality of the work will present itself in real time and erode all concepts, especially in relation to performance, where you have to put your body through it.

My art practice exists because I have an immense vacuum of desire that lives in my body. This desire, which I experience so fully and violently, makes me feel far, far away from things and as a consequence, incredibly lonely. Performance‑making is how I try to bridge the distances of wanting; to feel connected to things. I think the way that I make art is very apophenic; I’m always trying to connect the dots.

How have movement, dance and butoh shaped you, both artistically and personally?
I love butoh so much and the very fact that it has become such a staple in my life is like, wow, I can’t believe it’s that easy to live what you love. It’s a joyful existence. Plus, stumbling upon people that I can bravely call a community now has been humbling. Learning how to take care of people as a person who
can barely take care of themselves has been a difficult lesson because it forces you to treat yourself better.

Chasing butoh around Asia has also brought me on some mad adventures. I still can’t believe some of the places I’ve been able to dance at: a remote black sand beach on the edge of Taiwan; a blazing rice field at sunrise; the mossy belly of a waterfall that vibrated with a green so bright it hurt my eyes; and most recently, in a big field in north Thailand under the pouring rain, with 11 other people as crazy as me, all wearing the wackiest outfits.

Butoh has given me immense faith to move with and through the unknown as well. It has taught me to embrace the universe with every cell of my being, which in turn has taught me to fully trust my body, my vessel—the thing that carries me through life and the material I work the most with in my art.

What goes through your mind as you’re performing?
Ideally, nothing would be going through my mind, as it is better to inhabit a neutral or empty state when one dances butoh, for the body to be a clear receptacle for images or sensation to come forth. But I can’t always empty out my mind immediately, so usually in the process of becoming empty, I’m thinking about the most mundane things like “I have to go to the bathroom,” “my right hip is super stiff today” or “this part of my face itches,” or worrying about some potential wardrobe malfunction (it always happens.) But after a while, all that dissolves away as I begin moving.

One of my butoh teachers, Emiko [Agatsuma], often recites these instructions (that I cannot remember verbatim) when she begins her classes, and it has become a mantra for me:

Your body is an empty bag.
You forget your name, your gender, your nationality.
You forget everything.
You are just an empty bag.

Xue, the butoh artist, choreographer and performer, founded the Singapore Butoh Collective to cultivate awareness and appreciation of the Japanese avant-garde dance form
Photo: Bussy Temple/Farzanah Hussein

What are some common misconceptions about butoh?
One is that the practice is shamanistic or that the dancers are in a trance. The aesthetics of butoh often cause people to mistake it as an occult or mystical practice, or that there is spirit possession or supernatural forces at play, when actually the dancers are quite lucid, immersed in process of embodying and articulating images or sensations, borne of deep embodied awareness parsed through the realm of the subconscious. Furthermore, as butoh dancers are more focused on kinesthetically interpreting internal and external stimulus, they are not concerned with the optics of the dance and therefore can look freakish or surreal to others. This perhaps is what gives butoh its terrifying reputation (and disposition)—[it is] not helped by the fact that it is also popularly referred to as the “dance of darkness”.

Another huge misconception is that you need to have a dance background or be in good physical shape to practise butoh. Anybody can come into butoh—it is the most forgiving and expansive artform in the world—but how far you progress in the artform is up to you. Butoh is the total experience of the body, and all bodies are welcome.

What do you hope more people understand about butoh?
Although it supposedly rejects all forms of systematisation, butoh dance is a honed craft and requires high levels of concentration. Even in improvisation, the dance is not just a collection of randomised movements. The butoh dancer’s unique physicality and vocabulary is shaped by their level of receptiveness and ability to embody images and stimuli. The expression of butoh can also be quite subtle, with faint fluctuations of movement and microgestures. Sometimes butoh performances are slow and minimal, and if you’re not paying attention, a whole cacophony of things can pass you by in the blink of an eye.

I also hope that people can learn to appreciate the beauty of the dance. It is so gut wrenchingly beautiful, especially when you witness more experienced practitioners or elderly people dance butoh. Butoh ferments in the body in a series of complex processes and it is absolutely enthralling to watch.

What’s the most challenging aspect of what you do?
I think I might need to define what I do first, because I do a lot of things. Everything I do is movement based, often involving my own body and the bodies of others in various capacities and scenarios. In many of my projects I often have to take on both the role of producer and performer. In my butoh practice it’s more freestyle; I can just show up somewhere and dance, I don’t need much.

With producing, it’s all about money: I never have enough, especially because I produce a lot of my own things independently and there is a financial toll that I have to bear. I don’t have any institutional or private backing and am too impatient to apply for or do the paperwork. I’m always bleeding myself dry to set things in motion, but I have a job with a decent salary and I have good friends who are willing to help and share their resources, often without asking for anything in return. I go as hard as I can with them. I think when you have a thing that you believe in and people rooting for you, you’re willing to make sacrifices to see those dreams become a reality.

I think another challenging part is dealing with people and my own expectations, especially when the body is the core material of my work, I have to remind myself not to commodify people. I am learning to be empathetic to the body’s inability to show up on some days. I’m strict with myself, but I cannot hold people to impossible standards.