Grotesque (Upd: Apr 24, ’22)

“It is common usage to call ‘monster’ an unfamiliar concord of dissonant elements: the centaur, the chimera are thus defined for those without understanding. I call ‘monster’ all original inexhaustible beauty.” – Alfred Jarry¹

One of the first associations that one may have with butoh is that of the grotesque. The grotesque can encompass the sick, dead, ugly, monstrous, otherworldly, and/or unexplainable or awkward.

Within the history of Japan, grotesque movements in theater was not unheard of. Gunji Masakatsu explains:

Where did the postures that oppose the beauty of dance, such as bowed-legs, bent spines, clenched hands and feet, first originate? . . . [T]he conditions for accepting the beauty in such postures lie in the traditional theater of kabuki. Boar necks (ikubi) and hunched backs . . . are linked to the beauty of cruelty and obscenity and form the basis for the beauty of late Edo kabuki. . . . In addition, Shōyō . . . confirms the existence of a beauty of irrationality and artificiality by recognizing sadism and masochism and acknowledging the eroticism and violence in late Edo kabuki.9

With all this beauty to appose however, it is generally not recommended to simply be strange for strange’s sake. Tanya Calamoneri corroborates this suggestion: “The point of this [transformation] is not merely strangeness; the point is to blur the expression of ‘normal’ human-ness, to question conditioned responses, and, ultimately, to propose new ways of inhabiting the body.”8

On the topic of the grotesque in general, Geoffrey Galt Harpham in his book On the Grotesque opens with: “Grotesqueries both require and defeat definition. . . . They stand at the margin of consciousness between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the unperceived, calling into question the adequacy of our ways of organizing the world, of dividing the continuum of experience into knowable particles.”² He further notes, “‘[G]rotesque’ is another word for non-thing, especially the strong forms of the ambivalent and the anomalous.”³

Because humans are generally not satisfied with things remaining as non-things, they often try to impose labels upon the non-things with the familiar. So if for instance somebody has never seen or known of Sea lions, and then witnesses one, the witness may be inclined to call it a water dog, mermaid dog, or merdog, possibly neglecting the uniqueness (or third category) of the phenomenon. Geoffrey Harpham calls these inaccurate labels storage spaces for non-things.4 A similar situation often occurs when somebody witnesses butoh for the first time. Having never seen such a phenomenon, the witness may feel it is a form or corruption of mime, dance, theater, and/or performance art, but Butoh stands alone.

The grotesque is on the fringe (liminal/ma space), which is why it is so hard to tackle. George Santayana makes note of the interval (or gap) which is home to the grotesque. When the grotesque is experienced, one of two or both affects may take place:5

1. Confusion sets in and we see a “jumble and distortion of other forms” followed by escaping to the safety of our familiar forms.

2. We stay in place and cross over to the realm of discovery or the novel.

This same gap is identified by Deleuze and Guattari who draw upon Lovecraft: “Lovecraft applies the term ‘Outsider’ to this thing or entity, the Thing, which arrives and passes at the hedge, which is linear yet multiple, ‘teeming, seething, swelling, foaming, spreading like an infectious disease, this nameless horror.’ . . . It [the anomalous] is a phenomenon, but a phenomenon of bordering.”6

This gap or interval is what associates the grotesque with paradox. Geoffrey Harpham notes:

“If the grotesque can be compared to anything, it is to paradox. Paradox is a way of language against itself by asserting both terms of a contradiction at once. Pursued for its own sake, paradox can seem vulgar or meaningless; it is extremely fatiguing to the mind. But pursued for the sake of wordless truth, it can rend veils and even, like the grotesque, approach the holy.7

Hijikata’s World of Anatomy list of butoh-fu especially exemplifies the use of grotesque.

We may begin to deconstruct the idea of the grotesque and see the beauty in the grotesque or the beautifoulgrotesquisite, and repelegant.

Inner Awkward

Go deep inside yourself and find your own inner awkward. Automatically, it may tend to share the same space as the grotesque.

A Critique of Grotowski’s Anti-Grotesque

In Grotowski’s writing Tu es le fils de quelqu’un, he states the following: “In order to come to a valid improvisation, we should begin by eliminating all of those banalities plus several others. We should also avoid stomping the feet on the floor, falling and creeping on the ground and making monsters. Block all these practices! Then maybe something will appear.”10 

Some nerve Grotowski has for trying to banish monster, falling, and creeping on the ground. There is irony here since Grotowski’s name sounds like “grotesque.” All these cliches he mentions aren’t instances to stand on their own as second rate. The important thing is what the performer does with the role or circumstance which determines the value and that value will be different for everybody. To blanket statement and censor certain harmless phenomena is way counterproductive to the creative process.

¹ Jarry, Alfred. Oeuvres complètes. Essay: Les Monstres. 1895. Ed. 1948. Book 8. Page 28.
²  Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 3.
³ Page 4.
4 Page 6.
5 Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory. 1955. Page 257.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. Print. Page 245.
7 Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 20.
8 Calamoneri, Tonya. Dancing Hamlet in a World of Frogs: butoh and the actor’s inner landscape. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7:3, Page 377. 2016.
9 Gunji Masakatsu. 1985. “Butō to kinki.” Gendaishi techō 26, No. 6 (May): 86–89.
10 Grotowski, Jersy. Tu es le fils de quelqu’un. Wolford, Lisa, and Richard Schechner. The Grotowski Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2001. Print. Page 233.