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Origins of Butoh

Butoh is an art form that was born out of collaboration between  Japanese artists in the 1950's of whom most notorious are Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Beginning of Butoh was marked by Hijikata's solo performance "Forbidden Colour" in 1959. It was a ritualistic act that explored homosexuality and the inner darkness and eroticism of human beings. The performance shocked the Japan Modern Dance Association and the audience.

Hijikata had been deeply impacted by Ohno's performance in 1949 in Tokyo. In 1950's their collaboration and mutual influence on each other seeded the creation of Butoh. Ohno’s performance "The Old Man and the Sea" in 1959 that was directed by Hijikata and based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel also marked the beginning of Butoh.

Both Hijikata and Ohno studied German expressionist dance and were influenced by the heretical French literature, underground theater, Dadaism, Surrealism, Shintoism, Zen, and ideas of traditional Japanese performing arts such as Kabuki and Noh theater. Japanese aesthetics lurks at the root of Butoh and remains an aspect of it.

Butoh was first introduced overseas by Yoko Ashikawa and Min Tanaka, who were invited to participate in the "MA-Space / Time in Japan" exhibition in Paris in 1978. In the same year, the Ariadone no Kai (Carlotta Ikeda, Ko Murobushi and dancers) performed successfully in Paris. After that, groups and artists such as Sankai Juku and Kazuo Ohno were invited one after another, and Butoh spread from France to the world. Butoh has been a great influence on the theater and contemporary dance as well as for therapists, philosophers, psychologists, poets, painters, sculptors, visual artists, musicians, and also the general public in the world.

In the 90's Anzu Furukawa and Masaki Iwana visited Finland for teaching and performances. In particular Ken Mai, based in Helsinki, has been actively introducing Butoh in Finland also to the world since 2006 to the present. Minja Mertanen has been teaching Butoh in Finland and other countries since 2005.


But what is Butoh?

The question to answering “what is butoh" is a question every butoh artist is asking of him/herself once and once again.

So here are some words from some butoh teachers.


Hijikata said Butoh is not expression of acting, it is expression of metamorphosis. We become something else. We expand human concept to the nature.

For Kazuo Ohno talking about butoh said soul is leading the physical body, for Hijikata it was the opposite; Body is leading the soul.

For Ken Mai Butoh is sacred sex. 

Pasi Mäkelä, Finnish butoh artist said: “Butoh is a potato but dance.”

We are arranging the Helsinki Butoh Festival for the 4th time and it will be held on October 26th until October 29th, 2023. Performances will happen at Kellariteatteri and Workshops at PerformanceSirkus at Cable factory.

Previous festivals in 2019, 2020 and 2022 have been very successful, and for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Helsinki Butoh Festival we received support from the City of Helsinki.

The Helsinki Butoh Festival aims to support both emerging and advanced Butoh artists as well as other performing artists inspired by Butoh. This year edition we have big selection of international butoh artist who already have a long carrier behind them.

Our goal is to introduce Butoh to a wider audience and create a space of beauty and bare, grotesque and sublime, focusing on the body and the universal experiences of movement and inner self. Now more than ever performative arts and dance are needed to create a sense of unity.

- Ken Mai and Minja Mertanen, artistic directors / taiteelliset johtajat

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