“The dancer’s costume is to wear the universe.” – Kazuo Ohno
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.
Julie Becton Gillum has noted that the painting of the body before the performance was the beginning of the ceremony, part of a ritual.*
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. A healthy alternative to white paint can be Kaolin Clay. Also some forms of porcelain clay have been reported to work. 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). 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.