Mundanity & Gesture (Upd: Nov 13, ’22)

“I am chewing on cries and the profundity of esoteric gestures by gazing closely and unceasingly at the mundane.” – Tatsumi Hijikata¹

Mundanity or daily world can be an excellent starting place. General mundane movements involve throwing, picking up, setting down, pulling, pushing, and turning. Whereas specific mundane movements are everyday movements like brushing teeth, drinking a cup of tea, or planting seeds (for a farmer).

Both in public or in privacy, dancing the mundane (the mundance) can be a way to keep the body research going. The swagger, for instance, which is a stylized walk (basically a dance walk) is a sublte dance that can bridge the gap between the mundane world and theatre world.

Mundanity is also the starting place for Akaji Maro’s (founder of Dairakudakan) creation process known as Maro’s Method, which is the “Teburi” portion of the first pillar, which is one pillar amongst three: (1) Teburi/Miburi (Purposeless Movement); (2) Igata (Mould); (3) Chūtai (Space-Body).²

To Maru, Teburi is the everyday gesture whether conscious of unconscious. Miburi, on the other hand, is a crack in Teburi exposing the unconscious realm. One can think of sudden shocks or accidents in the everyday life. Time might stand still or become dreamy or nightmarish.²

Essentially, Akaji Maro starts with mundane movement in order to travel into their crevices after they crack. In Maru’s own words, “[After the accident] we become blank like “!!” …. Usually nobody is going to pay attention to that trivial thing and everybody lets that go past soon. But in Butoh, the small blank moment or crack in daily life is the door for the “Miburi” which is latent in another parallel line. In our [training], we open the door, enter a pitch‑black and pure‑white place, and collect the gesture, and receive them into our body.² As we see, “Miburi” here has a resemblance to liminal/ma space.

Similarly, Ko Murobushi encourages a disruption of the mundane with a forgetfulness in the moment. Tanya Calamoneri describes such an exercise in class:

Murobushi asked the students to begin with a daily action such as brushing our teeth or getting dressed and then, as if we were suddenly struck with Alzheimer’s disease, to forget what we had started doing. In the pause that ensued, we were to wonder at the form our body was in ‒ in my case, right arm up a right angle, bent at the elbow, hand in front of mouth and mouth agape ‒ and get curious about this.6

What Maro and Murobushi are interested in is essentially the defamiliarization of the mundane. This is at the very basis of Viktor Shkovsky’s view of art. Shkovsky notes, “The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”7

When the unfamiliar plays inside the familiar, it can also lead into the uncanny, which to Proul, Heine, and Vohs, is an unexpected unexpectedAn expected unexpected is not surprising.9 The strange within the mundane paradox is what can also be called the oddinary.

Exercise 1: Maro’s Teburi/Miburi

Have the participants engaged in something mundane such as drinking tea, exercising, or playing rock-paper-scissors (Teburi). Then on a cue, the participants are to be shocked in some way, whether it’s a sudden blare of sound or a cause for concern. The participants are to then immediately resonate with the physical and psychological reaction (Miburi), to extend it in space-time.

Exercise 2: Intensity Cultivation

This exercise builds intensity, value and/or presence in the seemingly non-intense or mundane. When we dance, we must be able to pour laser-level awareness into the action. Begin by engaging in an activity that is physically, mentally, and/or emotionally impactful or energetic. At the sound of a signal, the energy is immediately transferred to the mundane activity. Do not have judgments or preconceived notions of the mundane activity, just immediately enter into it straight from the prior high intensity activity.

Exercise 3: Abstraction

Brainstorm one specific everyday movement that resonates. Slowly perform this movement for two minutes or so, then gradually begin modifying this movement to the point where it enters into near abstraction with only the tiniest string linking back to the original source.

Exercise 4: Gesture Shift/Deterritorialization

Have the participant find one single mundane movement in the body that resonates with them. Now, with this exact same movement, instruct the participant to switch to another body part. It is also recommended to modify the movements by utilizing various qualities or reduction & regeneration.

Exercise 5: Movement Pun

The movement pun is heavily used in clowning and shifts the context of a movement. For instance, a mundane movement such as a hugging action or qualia can shift into one of exploitation or grabbing more than one needs. Holding the head (see further in Gesture) can be both a sign of confidence but also catastrophe. Can one also enact catastrophic confidence (which may be a paradox)?

Exercise 6: Shifting 1 Posture Pun

Similar concept to exercise 5 except there that there is no movement but one specific posture, e.g. pointing. This is a very internal exercise, but can act as a starting place for movement. To give an example of the pointing world, the internal storyline or qualia can shift from: (1) pointing out the direction for somebody; (2) judging somebody; (3) about to zap something with you finger. All come with an entirely different body feeling.

Exercise 7: Everyday Mundane Object Ritual

This is an exercise to do everyday or for a period of time and cultivates resonance with the mundane. It is also connected to a form of object resonance  known as deifying. Each day, find one mundane object, e.g. paper clip, rock, bubble gum wrapper, or a coin, and place this object on an altar or area of reverence. The exercise can also provoke any of the other various object resonances.

Exercise 8: Mundane Line of Degradation

This is a 2 or more mirroring exercise. The front person is an average everyday citizen and so can act normal whereas the person behind that person is some level of degradation of stupid, not-human, or crazy. One can take it further by yet putting another person behind the 2nd person who also takes the degradation further.

Exercise 9: Mundanity to Novelty Synthesizer Knob

Go from a state of comfort zone/mundane human world movements to that of risk/novelty zone and back, etc.

Exercise 10: Grabbing in Different Ways

The following comes from The Intimate Act of Choreography: “Put your arm out. Gather something and bring it in. Try it with different intentions: evil, caring, sneaking, tenderness, teasing, hoarding, loving, destroying.”10

Butoh in Real Life

Sometimes in real life, there are instances that mimic the world of butoh. Tatsumi Hijikata observed the streets of Tokyo and the rural farm bodies to inspire his butoh. In our everyday world, the drunk, drugged, sleepy, debilitated, infuriated, and neurodivergent can appear as butoh and inspire it. Check out the Butoh in Real Life video series that puts together various found footage across the internet that capture these precious moments.

Power Human Character Tropes That Provoke Butoh

Certain characters in everyday life can provoke or inspire the feeling of butoh. These are characters that anybody can identify with in some way.

  1. Drunk and/or drugged
  2. Very old
  3. Baby
  4. Differently abled mentally and/or physically
  5. Those experiencing movement blunders, e.g. slipping on ice for 15 seconds
  6. Health emergency
  7. Very sleepy, e.g. sleep deprivation, sleep walking, sleep paralysis
  8. Religious/spiritual possession
  9. Those in tantrum/freakout

If these tropes are then also combined in various ways, one can find oneself with some mammoth of a butoh being.

These characters are also examples of the minority within everyday life, where the majority can be sobriety, legal age (but not elderly), healthy body, blunder-free, tantrum-free, nor sleep-deprived, while spiritual or religious affects stay behind doors. Though these aspects of life are still very much human, they contain within them great potential for creation or becoming. They are examples of cracks within a dominant system.

Deleuze & Guattari saw the majority as a constant, a standard of measure assuming a state of power. In this state, there is a lack of becoming or creative potential. The becoming occurs instead at the minority, the variable or deviation, which is a subsystem of the majority.10

These characters can also be a familiar entry-point into the world of butoh for those who have never done it before, yet also be rich for those who have engaged with it.

Exercise: Real Life Jo-Ha-Kyu

This is an exercise in noticing Jo-Ha-Kyus around us. Become a people-watcher (performance voyeur) and locate the Jo-Ha-Kyu within a strange scenery. For instance, in the Shadowbody YouTube series known as Butoh in Real Life, video #32 (Fence Man 2) shows a simplified Jo-Ha-Kyu world change process of a drunk man: (1) Not shown prior to the video, the man will have obviously shown the need to get out of the park (Jo); (2) He tries to go between the bars (Ha 1); (3) He tries to climb up and fails (Ha 2); (4) A new character enters who implies the actual exit (Ha 3); (5) He goes through that exit to his belongings (Kyu).


Gesture is the body language passed onto us by culture and the animal kingdom ancestors. Awareness of gesturing movement is vital in order to conceal or express our intention and/or to limit the humanness of performance. It is important to practice gestures with reduction & regeneration. If not, our movements will fall into cliché, or as Stanislavsky would say, rubber stamps

If the gesture does not provide a change in mental state, then the gesture is not deep enough. This is the basis of Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture (PG). 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.”8

The following is a list of behaviors and their general associated body signals:

Openness/respect/acceptance: open hands, bow, hand to heart, prostration.

Defensiveness: Arms/legs crossed, locked ankles, clenched fists.

Expectancy: hand rubbing, crossed fingers, reaching.

Evaluation: Hand to cheek, head tilt, chin stroke, pacing.

Suspicion: sideways glance, turning head.

Secretiveness: nose rub.

Doubt/uncertainty: side of neck scratch, shoulder shrug, open palm shrug.

Disbelief: eye rub.

Nervousness: Fidget, ear tug, nail biting, pant tugging.

Insecurity: patting/folding hair.

Distress: hand on head, hand on heart.

Aggressiveness/frustration: hand on hips, stomp, tightly clenched hands, wringing hands, fist-like gestures, pointing index finger, open hand down, palm to back of neck, kicking ground or imaginary object.

Beauty presentation: face platter.

Confidence: hand steepling, hands joined at back, elevating oneself, back lean with hand supporting head.

Boredom: Head resting in hand, blank stare.

Exercise: Palm Up

There are varying types of gestures associated with the palm up to the sky. Depending on context and other qualifying factors of the body, the upward facing palm can mean confusion, surrender, begging, holding, and/or reverence.

Raise your arms up like you are pushing the sky. Drop your hands but keep the palms facing up the entire time. Naturally, your arms will form a spiral downward. Then vary your arm locations (e.g. open palm to the side). Visualize that you are holding a rock or a dish that you do not want to drop.

Gesture Fermentation (Ingesturation)

What is in a gesture? The typical gesture can be seen in everyday life or in movies. Mainstream actors know these gestures quite well. In butoh, however, we may not be too interested in the surface meaning of things or general associations. This is why I like to use the analogy of: (1) juice; (2) wine; (3) brandy. These three states will denote forms/levels of transformation and/or depth that we can enact upon a qualia.

Fermentation is cultivating ma or opening up a portal to the subbody. Christine Bellerose states, “When a choreographer asks a dancer for “more ma,” the dancer is asked to perform alchemy. A dancer who yields ma brings to movement the quality of aliveness to an otherwise neutral, or unborn space-time.”4 Neutral or unborn space-time here can mean the everyday world. Alchemy is fermentation. We want more magic.

Let juice be the ordinary gesture (or Maro’s teburi), e.g. an eye rub for disbelief. We then take this gesture and swallow it so that it can ferment (become more miburi). Ingesture. The question is, what will turn this juice gesture to a wine gesture? Is there something even more that can show us disbelief without the eye rub? Perhaps this is your secret. Is it new wine or aged wine? Can we take the process further into distillation? Can we make brandy? If so, will the brandy be a new brandy or an aged brandy? Perhaps the aged wine and aged brandy will take years of letting the gesture sit. This is your process.

Semiotics of Gesture

Like any system of signs, body language according to semiology has a signifier (vehicle) and a signified (driver).5 In this case, the gesture is the signifier and the associated meaning, the signified. Certain gestures have certain associations which are fostered by one’s culture. This is why the meaning behind certain gestures like hand signals in one culture can differ in another. Because generally butoh does not appear to depend much on gesture (as perhaps an art like mime would), we could say butoh is an art that shifts signifieds. In other words, butoh can be a strong meaning shifter.

Exercise 1: Gesture Deconstruction

This is basically a meaning shifting exercise, so that we can shift the usual meaning away from a particular gesture. For instance, we can pick any gesture associated with insecurity, so we go into the qualia of anything but insecurity. This exercise can train our ability to stop relying on signifyers with predetermined meaning. In butoh, we are the ones creating new meaning (signification).

Exercise 2: Stealing Gesture

This is a gesture transition where Character A’s end gesture is taken over and used as the beginning gesture for Character B. One can also try not waiting for an “end” to steal but outright stealing at any moment. Stealing will imply that only one character will have the gesture at a time.

¹ Tatsumi, Hijikata. Wild Daruma. Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh, translated by Jacqueline S. Ruyak and Kurihara Nanako, The Drama Review, (Spring) 44, 1:43 – 8.
² Bradley, Lynne M. Found in translation: Transcultural performance practice in the 21st century. PhD by Creative Works, Queensland University of Technology. 2017. Page 88.
³ Stanislavski, Constantin.  An Actor Prepares. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. Page 27.
4 Bellerose, Christine. Being Ma in Movement: Space-Time in Butoh, Somatic Practice, and Durational Performance Art. York University. Toronto. 2015. Page 19.
Saussure, Ferdinand , Charles Bally, and Albert Sechehaye. Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. Print.
6 Calamoneri, Tonya. Dancing Hamlet in a World of Frogs: butoh and the actor’s inner landscape. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7:3, Page 383. 2016.
Shkovsky, Victor. Art as Technique. Essay. 1917. Page 2.
8 Dalton, Lisa. The Psychological Gesture. Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret. Actors Inc. Issue 35 & 36.
9 Proulx T1, Heine SJ, Vohs KD. When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Jun;36(6):817-29. Epub 2010 May 5.
10 Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2013). A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury Academic. Page 105, 106.
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