Using Butoh to Connect and Create

An Interview with Ledoh


Ledoh is a Burmese Bay Area butoh artist who builds performance through culture, science and multimedia. Here, he discusses his own process, as well as how butoh is an ever evolving and reactionary form.

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How did you come to practice butoh?

I was born in Burma and came to the US in 1972 when I was 11 years old. I arrived in New York and grew up near Philly. I came out to San Francisco in 1980 and have mostly lived here since then. My interest in dance came out of my need for physical movement, from martial arts to sports. I’ve also practiced body work and massage therapy. The body has always been interesting to me. However, I particularly love to approach the body from artistic optics.

At one point, I took off for a year and did some travelling. I stumbled upon some new friends, one of whom was leaving her flat in Kyoto, Japan. I took the opportunity to stay at her place and visit Japan on my way to Thailand. I was planning on staying for three months, the length of a visitor visa, but I ended up staying for three years, from 1989 to 1992. I went back again in 1997. What happened was one of the housemates in the apartment building was heading to a butoh class. I’d heard of butoh but knew nothing about it. I asked her to explain more. She started to and then just invited me to the class. This was my entry to butoh and dance.

Dance had always been intimidating back in San Francisco. This was back in the early 1980s when the Bay Area was becoming a mecca for contact improv and contemporary dance. Most of the dancers had some ballet training. If I went to take a class, usually a dancer subsidizing her income at the front desk would ask what class and what level I wanted to take. Butoh allowed me to approach dance from more of a healing place that built on my history in bodywork. I see butoh as a movement meditation.

How would you describe your work?

I am a performance artist who uses movement-theater or dance-theater. Butoh is usually a question for people, so I struggle with putting it in a nutshell. If you ask 10 different butoh artists what butoh is, you’ll get 10 different answers. My understanding of butoh is that it emerged in the 50s and 60s in Japan with Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ohno, the two masters. They were breaking tradition. At the time, there was an influx of Western influences in art and lifestyle. They rebelled against both their own culture and the West, saying their culture took them to war, defeat and despair. To the West, with regards to ethereal movement like ballet, they said the body is earth-based; farmers walk. At the same time, they drew from their own culture, as well as from the contemporary performance format from the West.

I hesitate to call butoh an art form because it’s still alive and growing. I always hesitate to use the term ‘art form’ because it connotes preservation. Culture is always changing but, at the same time, there’s an essence to it.

In my own work, I utilize multimedia and video projection alongside music and live movement. I started using video because I was frustrated with how butoh was documented. With video artists, they usually want to document from their perspective, but it doesn’t tell the perspective of the performer. I like to layer perspectives and allow the mind to take interest in the activity of the moment. If I’m doing even the slightest movement with full interest and participation, whoever is observing it will have their own interpretation. I’m open to that; I’m not trying to explain anything. Most of my works take two years to develop, due in part to grant cycles, but also because I need time to develop what image I want to project. I attempt to get at a universal language and transcend the geopolitical aspect.

What are you currently working on?

The piece I’m working on right now, POOL READY, comes from my exposure to scientists. One of my partners is a scientist, and many of her colleagues specialize in climate science, from botany to hydrology. This has allowed me to examine how the earth is shifting. POOL READY comes out of the fact that the sea level is rising, but it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, as I believe humor is one of our saving graces. I feel there must be an entry point for people to not politicize climate change but to see it for what it is: basically, we’re just trying to save our asses, because the earth is fine without us. How do we educate others without being condescending? I want to enter from the other’s perspective, as if it is a conversation. Dance is a tool for communication.

I also want to share the beauty of what we face. I think plastic is beautiful. Man is nature, and plastic is made by man, so therefore we need to shift our perspective. In order for me to have that shift in my life, I have to recognize and reflect on what exactly I’m reacting to.  Ledoh 1

What is your working process like?

Let me go back a bit. I’m the father of two children. Right now, my daughter is at Bard, and my son has one year of high school left. Since they were born, my priority has been to be part of their lives. Finding ways to earn and do my creative work has always been built around them.

My pieces are inspired by different sources. Suicide Barrier, for example, was inspired by an article I read in the paper about the Golden Gate Bridge and proposals to make a suicide barrier. It was troublesome to me. This body is a temporary being, like a rental car. We have to turn it in one day, so the question is how we drive, maneuver and coexist.

Thoughts like these are triggered by music, travels or even memes. I’m quite curious about society. I like to sit and observe. HEARTLAND came from driving through a cornfield in the middle of Illinois, the bread basket of the US and world. I started to think about my connection to land and food. I asked myself how I enter environments and ecologies.

The big picture for me is that nothing is mine anyway, so I’m just trying to observe and connect while I’m here and then let go of what I create.

From your perspective, what does butoh look like today? What is contemporary butoh?

In Europe, especially Germany and Poland, I’ve seen people not identifying as butoh artists but using butoh influences. I don’t think you have to go to Japan to study butoh, but I think one should go to Japan just to have some level of verification. For me, it’s about maintaining the essence; I can add video projection and LED light technology, but it’s still butoh in its essence. I ask how to use butoh as an entry point, and then take my audiences on a journey. It’s about being respectful to that legacy but challenging it at the same time.

My history in bodywork allows me to return to the body. There are certain teachings I received prior to studying butoh that allowed me to easily enter the work. I was asked by Katsura Kan to perform after studying butoh for only two weeks, and I had never performed before. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my prior experience.

Where do you see your work going in the future?

I gravitate to places. I try to find nooks and crannies of the culture where I am. That in itself is education. In the future, I’d like to travel more, especially since my children are almost grown. I want to build networks around the world, mostly Europe and Asia, but I’m curious about Africa and South America as well. I’m attracted to those Afro roots and the musical traditions that arise from it. Indigenous cultures are of particular interest to me, given my own background. How does one straddle two cultures? This is a question I ask myself: How do I build those bridges? I also want to continue to work with all levels of movement ability, to help individuals find movement already within them.

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Ledoh is an internationally-renowned multimedia performance artist who trained in Japan under butoh master Katsura Kan (member of the radical 70s collective BYAAKOSHA), and has since electrified audiences for over 15 years with his riveting solo and ensemble performances. Born into the Ka-Ren hilltribe, he came to America at age 11 to escape the oppression of his people by the brutal dictatorship holding power in Burma. As artistic director of SALT FARM, Ledoh choreographs with a raw movement vocabulary and directs the production of sets, video art and musical scores to create a vital, visceral brand of live theater and site-specific installations. 

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