“The dancer’s costume is to wear the universe.” – Kazuo Ohno
The application of body paint is often a preparatory practice. Richard Schechner calls performance preparatory practices proto-performance.8 Julie Becton Gillum has noted that the painting of the body before the performance was the beginning of the ceremony, part of a ritual.*
Shironuri is the Japanese term for painting the body white. Tamano Hiroko once said regarding white body paint, “It’s erasing myself. It’s not painting.”¹ To Katja Centonze, it can also reflect a stage of death, Pallor mortis, which is also associated with a white color.²
Though white is a commonly portrayed color in butoh (for costume and skin color), any color or lack thereof may be used.
In Tatsumi Hijikata’s earlier pieces (1957 to 1961) such as Forbidden Colors, black was actually the color of choice for the body.4
The first use of white was from an experiment entitled Mid-afternoon Secret Ceremony of a Hermaphrodite (1962), which consisted of being slathered with white plaster. Then the white body butoh motif was born.5
There are various types of body paint on the market. It is recommended to look at the ingredients because some paints may not be good for the skin.
General acrylic paint is not intended to be applied to the skin and can be toxic. Children’s finger paint is probably safe but be aware of the ingredients anyway.
Zinc Oxide powder is a recommended form of white pigment which stays on the skin nicely. It is also known as a skincare product. To use, add with water. Because it stays on the skin, it may take a good amount of effort to remove.
Other healthy alternatives include Kaolin clay which usually comes in powder form and potters clay which usually comes in the moldeable form. Both require water to become a paste or slip (more liquid) consistency in order to adhere to the skin.
Clay can add a patchy and textured look to the skin. Though if one desires a smooth consistency that always adheres to the skin then clay is not the way to go.
Because it can be rinsed off the skin so easily, it does add a post-performance convenience but it can also leave a big mess to clean up in the performance space.
The performance artist Olivier de Sagazan is well-known for his use of clay in both its slip and paste form which he places on the body in order to whiten it and form shifting masks and body alterations. In observing Sagazan, the application of clay is not a proto or pre-performance but the main performance itself. So Sagazan’s performances could be thought of as clay or mask-based.
Also good to note, that prolonged heavy use over of clay is not recommended since breathing in the dust can lead to longterm health effects.
Beginning in the 6th century, Kabuki used oshiroi which was composed of mixing rice powder with water.7
Outside of white, mud has also been used by butoh performers and is great for the skin.
CAUTION: If one is using ash, one has to be very careful. First one should know if the type of wood is not toxic for the skin, and most importantly, one must never apply wet ash on the skin. This can cause severe chemical burns. To remove dry ash from the body, it can be rinsed off.6
Some productions make great use of costumes, some more elaborate than others, while others are more stripped down, reminiscent of Jerzy Grotowski’s ideal of body focus alone or minimalism.³ Rhizome Lee’s Infectuous Fever piece was completely naked and without body color.
One can get extraordinarily creative with costumes by using everyday objects or junk. Paper (e.g. newspaper), plastic, string, and tape can go a long way.
An important note about the costume (or mask) is that we shall consider not relying on them 100% for expression or embodiment, unless we have already embodied the qualia within ourselves. This is the same case with expression of emotion. The real dancer underneath is not to be lost.
Many experimental costume designers of the past can serve as inspiration, especially Lavinia Schulz.
To take an extreme deterritorialized example, we see Ohno’s quote at the beginning of this page about the whole universe being the costume.
But there are many ways to reevaluate the costume. Take for instance nudity obscured by the limbs. One could say the body has taken on a new costume (using its own body). We can call this the living costume.
The mask is also a form of costume. The face in butoh is already a living mask.
If we use a curtain in our dance, the curtain could also become a costume. Another human could become our costume.
Costumes can also automatically be a form of prop.