Ma & Space (Upd: Jul 28, ’22)

“I don’t dance in the place, but I am the place.” – Min Tanaka¹

Aki Yo

Ma is a Japanese term that means “in the gaps and intervals of time, space and being.” In other words, liminality which is also connected to paradoxMa is used in endless ways.² As artists, it’s recommended to think in terms of space or in-between.

The shadowbody and ma as a whole appear to be in a deep symbiotic relationship. If the shadowbody is associated with a rhizomic multi-dimensional world, then ma is its in-between-space-and-time container, ground, and/or vehicle. Rhizome Lee calls ma resonance itself.Ma being resonance may make sense when noting that resonators in sound are spaces or openings.

Creating space, emptying, and quieting are also regarded as the initial conditions needed for creation in butoh and anything in general.

Miki Seifert, while admitting that any definition would only be partial, has invented the term butoh space to be “the lived experience where the boundaries between mind/body, self/others and self/environment are erased and from which it is possible to create authentic movement, where the quotidian experience of self, time and space is altered.”11

Space — Hijikata’s space qualia butoh-fu.


“Physical appearance, activities, and meanings are the raw material of the identity of places.” – Ralph Edwards³

Any place, set, or setting is fair game in Butoh, whether inside a box, or street. The space can even be imaginary and/or psychological (e.g. bad ma ≈ bad vibes). Within the place, we have space. As Peter Brooks notes, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, an this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”See section Production & Audience for more on the performance space.

Not only is the term ma used for a walled room, but also for the space between the walls.6

Deleuze and Guattari’s use of haecceity encompasses a segment of experience where the place/set/setting is not separate from the self: “Climate, wind, season, hour are not of another nature than the things, animals , or people that populate them, [but] follow them, sleep and awaken within them. This should be read without a pause: the-animal-stalks-at-five-o’clock. The becoming-evening, becoming-night of an animal, blood nuptials. Five o’clock is this animal! This animal is this place!”7

According to Contemporary Metaphor Theory, place is a CONTAINER image schema14 because we use inside/outside language when speaking of it such as: “We are in New York. “We are in love.” Image schemas to Lakoff and Johnson are “recurrent patterns in perceptual-motor experience that derive from our bodily interaction with the physical world.”14 To Boroditsky, they are a prelinguistic groundwork for creation of conceptual metaphor mappings.”15

Exercise 1: Child Vision

Look around the entire space as if for the first time. Have child vision. Do not judge or compare, only notice.

Exercise 2: Space Infiltration

Within a certain time limit (1 minute, 20 seconds, 10 seconds, etc.), the participants are to touch/steal as much space as possible. Resonate with how sporadically the body may transform in result.

Exercise 3: Space Crescendo/Decrescendo

From one space to the other, the participant begins with the qualia limitless space (refer to exercise 2 above), but then as one gradually goes to the other end of the space, the space gets more contracted until it becomes the most cramped.

Sacred Space/Place

“Every moment is a gift.” – David Steindl-Rast13

According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, bhakti in Sanskrit means that commonality between one and the infinite space.8 Performance of this type draws a full communion with space, and to Shankar is connected to Divine Love itself. This is full life resonance. This is taking 100% presence to life itself.

Ma as Transition

If ma is viewed as the in-between/liminal, transition is deeply related to it because transition is itself in-between two things. As butoh dancers, we must get into the habit of being in endless transition and developing transitions even where one would not think to find one, e.g. audience member → performing bubbles qualia → the face that begins tilling the field. What is between the qualia of an audience member and that of bubbles? How long can we stretch this transition?

Transition can be related to Filler & Scribble, idling in performance.

Rotting Ma

“A hand ends up going for something and never coming back.” – Tatsumi Hijikata18

When there is a kan or negative resonance with the in-between space, this Hijikata called rotting ma. This ma is infiltrative and creates a life of its own. In Wind Daruma Hijikata writes:

Where does the rain start and where does it end? The surrounding space too gets mixed up in this time of rain with no start and no end, and there is no longer any distinction between time and space. And I wonder if, like the rotting cabbage, I will end up rotten to the core. That is the “ma” that they talk so much about in Japanese kabuki dance (nihon buyo). That “ma” also rots. I call it “rotting ma.” This “rotting ma” is terrible. And I make a quick escape into the closet.19

Any point A to point B can have a rotten ma . One of the perspectives of butoh is that it is the dance that gets lost or glitches within its various points of transition. Nothing is simple anymore. There is “a struggle with invisible matter inside the body” as Hijikata has said.18

Picking up a marble, for instance, will be no simple feat but comes attached with diving into an underworld where there is no guarantee of victory. Everything that happens is a serious event even if it’s also playful or lighthearted.


“If you move yourself, people can’t see the space around you.” – Nagaoka Seisaku12

As a whole, space can also be thought of as: (1) yang (positive); (2) yin (negative); (3) yin-yang (neutral/beyond).

Positive space is associated with the doer, performer, ego, and/or “my person.” This is the natural state we might find ourselves in. The performer uses positive space when they want to feel that they are doing the moving.

Negative space, on the other hand, is associated with someone or something outside of oneself. When utilizing negative space, the performer is often being moved by someone or something. There is little or no ego involved and there is a general openness or innocence. This being moved by space itself is also the main concept behind Akaji Maro’s Chūtai (Space-Body).

Neutral space is associated with both positive and negative or beyond. In neutral space, the performer touches the negative space with positive space. Neutral space may also be associated with the origin, the source, death, or the unborn. To Rhizome Lee, this can be related to a transparent Riken, watching oneself from the outside during performance (and maintaining 50% inside and 50% outside).10

To the pupil of Jersey Grotowski, Stephen Wangh, the 50/50 concept is the third paradox of acting, where the inside and the outside must have equal attention.16  This double resonance is also called coolness by Yukio Waguri and not drunk by Yukio Makami.17 

Exercise: Single String Puppet

To shift focus from utilizing positive space to utilizing negative space, attach an imaginary string to any part of your body and move as if it were pulling you. We will be working with the concept of the string further in the text.


There are high, middle and low levels of space. Maximum high level takes place physically on the balls of the feet or visually in the sky. Maximum low level takes place physically as a body flat on the ground or visually down to the core of the earth.

Exercise: Laser Chaser

Like a cat who chases a laser, chase the laser at ground level, but also at the varying levels against the wall.


The performer can resonate within any space, whether it is a big gymnasium or a small suit case, e.g. Hijikata’s boxed body from his Quiet House butoh-fu.4 The participant can also space-bend a fixed space.

Exercise: Space Stretching

Take 5 seconds to get from one side of a space to another. Then go back toward the other side but only half way for another 5 seconds. Then go back with yet another half for 5 more seconds. Continue this until the space is stretched so thin, you appear to be nearly frozen. Try to keep the time it gets from getting from one space to the other uniformly. After you have become proficient in this, then you can stylize the timings like with crescendos, etc.

Direction & Pathway

Directions go right, left, up, down, forward, backward, and in-between all of these. These directions can be initiated from any part of the body. When the direction is connected to locomotion, we have a pathway, which can go straight, in a curve, zigzag or a mixture of any. Deterritorialize any of these directions or pathways by adding noise or scribble to them.

To Contemporary Metaphor Theory, these go back to the womb and are described as the UP-DOWN, FRONT-BACK image schema.14 Image schemas to Lakoff and Johnson are “recurrent patterns in perceptual-motor experience that derive from our bodily interaction with the physical world.”15

Exercise: Breath Across Space aka Lunging

The participant goes across the space on inspiration and backwards upon expiration. Work with different speeds connected to breath. You can also do the same along the walls in the room, returning back to where you began. The exercise can also from into a circle of participants facing each other where the full expiration/breath hold is at the very center of the circle.


To get an idea of relationship, think of prepositions. Here is a list: aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, amid, among, anti, around, as,at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, opposite, outside, over, past, round, through, to, toward, under, up, upon, with, within, without.

Relationship is one form in which ma is used. Günter Nitschke expresses the idea: “Even in a simple one-dimensional use, the character ma exhibits its peculiar ambivalence, signifying both ‘distance’ or ‘interstice’ and ‘relatedness’ or ‘polarity.’5

Exercise: Prop Relationship

Plug in the prepositions with any prop, e.g. chair or scarf.

Merging with the Space

The following is a space resonance exercise documented by P. Liao during a Hokutobo Butoh Dance Company workshop in Taiwan, 1996. This concept is also the bases of Akaji Maro’s Chūtai (Space-Body).

Stand in a corner of a space. Observe and feel the space. Try to move the body. Find the gesture/posture that is felt to best correspond to the space. In other words the bodily gesture/posture should best represent the sensations given by the space, such as its length, width, and depth, whether it is spacious or crowded, bright or dark, warm or cold, the air flow if any, the texture of the wall…

Stand further away from the corner. Repeat the previous sequence until a new gesture/posture has been found. Change the standing locus for a third time. Repeat the same sequence.

Compare the bodily gestures/postures obtained in the three loci. Examine and feel how they link to the whole space and are influenced by the change of loci. Develop a sequence of bodily movement, moving from the first locus, through the second, to the third locus.

 The bodily gesture/posture in each locus should keep corresponding to the space, and the transition from one bodily gesture/posture to another should also keep corresponding to the space.5

1 to 1 Correspondence Between Space & Body

We can form a body map with any structure or space before us. Such is an example (see above) is lunging, where the in breath and out breath are connected to the space, and so forming a lung out of the space itself.

Exercise 1: Big Chalk Body Outline

Draw a big chalk outline of a body that spans a big part of the floor space. Wherever one is currently residing in is the body part that is being initiated in the body.

Exercise 2: Room Body Visual Resonance

The room is a body laying down. Map whether the ceiling is the back or front of the body and the arms being the side of the wall. Wherever the attention goes, that is also where the attention goes in the body.

Finding Unique Space Limitations (Site-specific)

When we have limitations, it is a wonderful opportunity for us to get creative on how to resonate and create within this limitation. A space itself may have elements about it that can limit one’s movement or world and so this idea is richer in site-specific areas outside of the studio. The findings are endless, e.g.  stairs, on a tree, inside a car, etc.

 The Void

“Nothing can be stated about the ‘void.’ It is impossible even to think about it. Nevertheless, enlightened ones […] have created many devices with which they have tried to lure their disciples into a state of being in which the above phrase does make sense.” – Gunther Nitschke5

This is the archetypal hostile space/ma. It is often the censored block itself to past hardships or traumas. In the shadowbody, we can attempt to find an edge or bottom body for shadow work. For those into digging and digging to find the ultimate primordial “thing” or No-Thing, The Void or Abyss might eventually rear her head. This territory has been seen as the most terrifying place in existence, possibly even more so than the Spanish Inquisition. It has even been known as Enlightnment’s Evil Twin.

Yet, this attitude of fear is only adopted by those who resist this space/ma. The sign before the entrance to Dante’s Inferno read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” But the key is in interpretation. Abandon hope by surrendering, else resistance will be the true hell.

For those who have reached this edge of all edges, they may have in result gotten to step into the kingdom of kingdoms, The Void’s “opposite” associated with maximum meaning and value. This happens because The Void may imply its opposite. If The Void is the serpent’s ferocious mouth (the end of everything) then its opposite is the beginning of everything—the Tail or Tale (story/Jo-Ha-Kyu). Life is a story, a theater. For this reason, shadowbody butoh is about life resonance.

When we dance butoh, we dance life. If we go to The Void, it’s in order to kiss the immortal flower that grows from it. It may be one entity, the ouroboros.

World of Abyss — Hijikata’s abyss qualia butoh-fu.

The Ouroboros

The ouroboros may be the ma of mas. The ouroboros is the serpent that bites its own tail. This shows a prolific, powerful image of primordial nature, lying at the heart of all that we are and do. All appears to possess a type of feedback loop. This can be visualized by pondering over the notion of memory with its endless loopy associations of past, which are but endless copies fed into itself. One cannot say that the past or future exist identically as the present, unless one steps radically inward or outward to visualize a notion of transcending space/time itself, hence theoretically making all exist equally to each other. Yet, who can ever say this is also not space/ma?

For a century, quantum physics attempted to dive into smaller and smaller bits of substance, attempting to find the most primordial substance of all, only to find itself biting its own tail like the ouroboros. They noticed the act of observation completely modified or undermined their own experiments. This appears to make the primordial more mysterious than it was in the first place.

Related butoh psychodrama: Ouroboros

¹ Viala, Jean, and Nourit Masson-Sekine. 1988. Butoh: Shades of Darkness. Japan: Shofunotomo.
² Pilgrim, R. B. (1986). Intervals (“ma”) in space and time: Foundations for a religioaesthetic
paradigm in Japan. History of Religions, 25(3), 255–277
³ Ralph, Edward, Place and Placelessness, Pion Ltd, London, 1976.
4 Lee, Rhizome. Behind the Mirror: Butoh Manual For Students. Print.
5 Liao, P. An Inquiry into the Creative Process of Butoh. City University London. 2006. page 56. Print.
6 Nitschke, Günter. Ma, Place, Space, Void. 1993.
7 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. P. 263. Print.
8 Shankar, Sri Sri Ravi, “Narada Bhakti Sutra: The Aphorisms of Love.” 2008. Bangalore. Page 13.
9 From 09/11/18 Lecture at Subbody School of Butoh, Mcleod Ganj, India.
10 Behind The Mirror: A Butoh Manual For Students. 2010. Page 199.
11 Seifert, Miki. He rawe tona kakashu/She Wore A Becoming Dress: Performing the Hyphen. PhD Dissertation. Victoria University of Wellington. 2011. Page 66.
12 Seisaku, Nagaoka. Stated during ZOOM class. June 05/06, 2020.
13 Steindl-Rast, David. Want to be happy? Be grateful. Ted Talk. 2013.
14 Szwedek, Aleksander. The OBJECT image schema. 2 Adam Kciewics University. 2017. Page 13.
15 Boroditsky, L  “Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors”. Cognition75 (1): 1–28. 2000.
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 159.
17 Calamoneri, Tonya. Dancing Hamlet in a World of Frogs: butoh and the actor’s inner landscape. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7:3, Page 385. 2016.
18 Hijikata, Tatsumi. Wind Daruma. TDR (1988-), Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), Page 77.
19 Ibid. Page 76.
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