Essence & Form (Upd: Jun 10, ’22)

“The more we become absorbed in what is hidden inside us, in the excess, in the exposure, in the self-penetration, the more rigid must be the external discipline; that is to say the form, the artificiality, the ideogram, the sign. Here lies the whole principle of expressiveness.” – Jerzi Grotowski¹

Essence and form are the yin and yang of dance theatre. However, like the term shadowbody and even butoh, essence is vague and may even be what Stewart Chase called a semantic blank: an abstract word without a discoverable referent.13 

As one narrative goes, in western and highly structured non-improvisational dance, the primary focus may be on form, but form without essence lacks substance and may be deemed mere decoration. In our dance, we might place emphasis on essence/content. This is not to say that we cannot place a great amount of energy on form (the shell). Form may be conditioning. Form may be treated as a resource or the wardrobe for the shadowbody. Mature expressiveness, as Grotowski hints in the quote above, is the dual crafting of both form and the hidden (the shadowbody).

Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata were on opposite sides regarding the starting place of content and form. Hijikata began with form and noted that “life catches up with form,” and when there is structure, the natural result will be content. Ohno, on the other hand, claimed that “form comes by itself” when there is spiritual content.14, 15 

To work at reaching this mature expressiveness, one can either begin with form or essence/content. Both can arrive at the same place. If, however, we are to begin with form, we must remember to feel the body. Certain shapes or movements, like warping for instance, may bring about associations, memories, or feelings. We must not ignore anything internally that surfaces. If we are listening to ourselves, they will always feel fresh.

This feeling at whatever forms come about is the very notion behind Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak’s plastiques/plastique river. A plastique is a body part isolation that moves in various directions, and when this flow travels throughout the body, that is a plastique river. When one of these random movement isolations provokes a sensation, feeling, emotion, or image, this is incorporated. So here the physical form provokes the content.16 

We musn’t be satisfied with only physical shapes, decoration, or tricks. In Su-En’s notes for Yoko Ashikawa, she writes “Butoh materials cannot be copied, but must be reborn again and again in the student’s/dancer’s body. If there is no passion or fire, it is just empty shapes.”12

Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture (PG) is an example of a form-based practice that has depth. Lisa Dalten says of the PG: “[I]n one movement, the PG awakens the essence of the character in you thus aligning your thoughts, feelings and will (objective) with that of the character.”11 This is similar to how if one smiles in a certain way, the psychology of the smile may follow. So, if nothing is being felt, then the psychological gesture, then we are not going deep enough in the gesture.

Deep Fake

Craig Schwartz : There is truth, and there are lies, and art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying. (From Being John Malkovich)

In Hijikata’s final writing piece Sick Dancing Princess, he stated, “Because of monotonic and anxious things stormed into the body, I might faintly be aiming at an opportunity to fabricate fake things within by wearing a haze to the body.”² According to Rhizome Lee’s in-class commentary, “fabricating fake things” was a reversal of the “authenticity” or “real” goal of creation. This was one of Hijikata’s moments of humility and also perhaps a moment of buoffon.

We can drop “essence” altogether then if we wish, to find our personal deep dish pizza. Imagine, for instance, that a performer is seen in what appears to be deep concentration and/or presence. Perhaps someone feels she/he/they have entered into a profound multidimensional world or one of catharsis, but in reality, he was merely resonating with a deep dish pizza. Is this a moment of both authenticity and fraud paradox or fraudthenticity/fauxthenticity?

Stephen Wangh, a pupil of Jersy Grotowski notes that the first paradox of acting is having serious fun, playing seriously.17 Serious here can mean true or authentic to oneself. Note however that if we get lost in authenticity, we can risk of losing play or fun, yet if we get lost in play or fun, we can risk losing authenticity.

Fake it to make it? What if we can learn so much by mimicking Kazuo Ohno’s movements, pulling the Kazoo Ohno. We can learn from cheap imitations, no? Can we be legitimitative?

Fake can also take the form of unbelievability. But maybe sometimes we want this.

Exercise: Fake to Authenticity Synthesizer Button

We can take this fake/authenticity (or unbelievability/believability, fun/serious) binary and put them on the synthesizer button. Control the sliding scale from fake to authentic.

Semiotic Interpretation

Form and essence can also be interpreted as the signifier (the vehicle) and signified (the meaning).3 To say “essence” may deceive the individual into thinking that the meaning exists for itself (like an absolutist God), hence being what Derrida called a transcendental signified, which he felt was an illusion. He instead felt things are dependent on difference instead (defined by other signifier that the signifier is not, ad infinitum). So thinking in terms of “essence” may be a bit outdated, and reductionist. Instead, there appears to be a systematic play at hand, where no one thing in particular exists for itself. Meaning, to Derrida, resides in the play of difference.4

We can then use the idea of “essence” as a tool, but perhaps it is best not to get lost in the idea too much, for delving too heavily into it may undermine it like repeating a word over and over till it disappears.


“We have the belief of the total body, and the view of ‘body as the scene of a full life.'” – Natsu Nakajima5

Form can also be taken as body and the subconscious as mind. The separation is an old theatrical duality (early Stanislavsky), but does not have to be. Shadows of the body can imply shadows of the mind and vise versa because the mind/body distinction may be a false dichotomy. Richard Schechner says of this union: “All performance work begins and ends in the body. When I talk of spirit or mind or feelings or psyche, I mean dimensions of the body. The body is an organism of endless adaptability. A knee can think, a finger can laugh, a belly cry, a brain walk and a buttock listen.”6

Whether the body or mind is emphasized, the important thing to grasp is that there is a fusion or symbiotic relationship between the two. David Edward Shaner explains: “Although there may be mind-aspects and body-aspects within all lived experience, the presence of either one includes experientially the presence of the other. This relationship may be described as being ‘polar’ rather than ‘dual’ because mind and body require each other as a necessary condition for being what they are. The relationship is symbiotic.”7 Peter Brook gives the example of a cat: “If you watch him [the cat] jump on a shelf, the wish to jump and the action of jumping are on the same thing.”8

Furthermore, body/mind dualism may encourage viewing the body as a mere instrument, an object alone, which is certainly not the case in butoh. Tara Ishizuka Hassal explains precisely why. “[Butoh] is the subject of dance itself. When the Butoh dancer is naked onstage, i.e. uncovering his flesh, he symbolizes that he is in fact exposing his inner life, and that the body and the dance are one; they are inseparable.

Shannon Rose Riley bases her Theory of Embodied Perception exercises on the idea that the mind-body is an endlessly dialoging whole that will turn erroneous at any moment if separated into mind or body.10

¹ Grotowski, Jerzy, Towards a Poor Theatre, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.
² Hijikata, Tatsumi. Sick Dancing Princess, Ch. 1, part 2. Translation by Rhizome Lee. 2017.
³ Saussure, Ferdinand , Charles Bally, and Albert Sechehaye. Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. Print.
4 Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Print.
Nakajima, Natsu. Ankoko Butoh. From Lecture at Fu Jen University “Feminine Spirituality in Theater, Opera, and Dance.” Translated by Lee Chee-Keng. 1997. Revised Translation: Elizabeth Langley and Denise Fujiwara. 2002.
6 Schechner, Richard, Environmental Theater, New York: Hawthorn, p. 132.
7 Shaner, David Edward, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism, Albany: State University of New York Press. 1985.
8 Heilpern, John. Conference of the birds: the story of Peter Brook in Africa. Revised edition. London : Methuen Drama. 1989. Page 137.
9 Hassal, Tara Ishizuka, Butoh, on the Edge of Crisis? University of Oslo, p. 31.
10 Riley, Shannon Rose, Embodied Perception Practices: Towards an Embrained and Embodied Model of Mind For Use in Actor Training and Rehearsal. Theatre Topics, Volume 14, Number 2, September 2004. Page 458.
11 Dalton, Lisa. The Psychological Gesture. Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret. Actors Inc. Issue 35 & 36.
12 SU-EN. “Light as Dust, Hard as Steel, Fluid as Snake Saliva: The Butoh Body of Ashikawa Yoko. The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2018. Page 211.
13 Chase, Stuart. The Tyranny of Words. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. Page 14.
14 Fraleigh, Sondra & Nakamura, Tamah. Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. NY, New York. 2006. Page 31.
15  Ohno, Kazuo and Ohno, Yoshito (2004) Kazuo Ohno’s World from Within and Without, translated by John Barrett, Wesleyan, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
16 Wangh, Stephen. An Acrobat of the Heart: A Physical Approach to Acting Inspired by the Work of Jerzy Grotowski. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print. Page 105, 106.
17 Ibid. Page 158.
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