A Critique Of Grotowski’s View of Improvisation From a Butoh Dancer’s Perspective

“Some words are dead, even though we are still using them. Among such words are show, theater, audience, etc. But what is alive? Adventure and meeting.” – Grotowski (1)

Jersy Grotowski inspired countless performing artists with his heavy discipline on experimentation and excavating the deep (ancient) inner artist.
He went through several phases in life, each getting more and more personal to the point of eventually dropping any reliance on witness/audience outside of a select few (like a mystery school).

At Grotowski’s second phase of research (paratheatre and active culture), his main concern was how to bridge the audience and performer divide. He was experimenting with expanding the frame of improvisation and even allowing for non-performers to collaborate. This phase is what led to his Beehive events where groups met in a space (inside or in nature) to improvise with no set parameters outside of one beginning action (such as group singing). (1)

A number of observations were made (as noted by in the film My Dinner With Andre). The participants naturally engaged in a wide range of activities from dancing, singing, crying, nurture, acting, playing, making ritual, etc. The enthusiasm of Andre made it sound like something of another world, wholesome, and even authentic.

Grotowski, however, was his own worst critic and eventually wanted to forget about this type of work out the conviction that it was too amateurish or “dilettantist” (the word he specifically used). (2)

In his essay Tu es perils de quelqu’un, he goes after specific cliches which included: “to make ‘savages,’ to imitate trances, to overuse the arms and hands, to form processions, to carry someone in a procession, to play a scapegoat and his persecutors, to console a victim, to perform simplicity confused with irresponsible behavior, to present one’s own cliches of behavior, social daily-life behavior, as if they were naturalness (so to speak, to conduct oneself as in a bistro).” (2)

He then further notes: “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.” (2)
Grotowski here appears to have robbed all the fun out of improvisation… and life. A shadow must have been looming over him regarding the value of play. Play is just as important and just as serious as competence or professionalism (competence measured with a capitalistic spin). Apparently, to Grotowski, improvisation should only be for the competent, trained, and refined individual. I get it, only a privileged few can be chosen to be in his refined playground where only serious business improvisation is allowed.

But can one man’s amateur/fake be another’s profound/authentic? Tatsumi Hijikata seemed to have been addressing this emphasis on inauthenticity by declaring himself a big faker: “Because of monotonic and anxious things stormed into the body, I might faintly be aiming a chance to fabricate fake things by wearing a haze to the body.” (3)

Grotowski separates improvisation into two forms: chaos and readaptation to a structure. The former he associated with dilettantism (amateurism) and the latter with a connection with one’s ancient self. (4)

I have seen the authenticity Grotowski fixation before and a reductionist sort of obsession with the “real self,” but the risk in this involves pushing play and youth into the margins.

To Jacques Derrida, all meaning is nothing but the play of difference. (5) Him (like many other non-reductionist philosophers such as Deleuze and Whitehead) were not concerned about an essence or original, but in the interlinks or processes of everything.

As noted in the “Essence & Form” page of the shadowbody butoh manual, I suggest: “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 this person has entered into a profound multidimensional world or one of catharsis, but in reality, this person was merely resonating with a deep dish pizza. Is this a moment of both authenticity and fraud paradox or fraudthenticity/fauxthenticity?”

Would Grotowski have banished our own personal deep dish pizza? Or is it passable as a non-cliche?

Some nerve Grotowski has though for trying to banish monster, falling, and creeping on the ground. Why I oughta! All these cliches mentioned aren’t instances to stand on their own as second rate. It is all about what the performer does with their 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.

Yes, we should pay good homage to craft, but in so doing, we should not forget what led up to this craft and what will be there waiting for us always — dilettantism. To banish it is like trying to banish pooping. Mr. Grotowski, how about we “yes, and” a little more?

(1) Grotowski, J. (1973) Holiday: The Day That Is Holy. TDR,17(2) p113

(2) Wolford, Lisa, and Richard Schechner. The Grotowski Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2001. Print. Page 233.

(3) Hijikata, Tatsumi. Sick Dancing Princess. Ch. 1.

(4) Wolford, Lisa, and Richard Schechner. The Grotowski Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2001. Print. Page 237.

(5) Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Print.

Child Vision

A type of memory revisits me occasionally from elementary school. A mundane memory, yet a rich one.

I remember all the times when workbooks were passed out which led to a multi-sensory experience. I remember being drawn by the colors, gloss, smell, sound, and pictures. I would have added taste if it weren’t for the social ramifications (which is what molds human domestication).

The actual subject matter in those workbooks usually were the least of my curiosity.

Children appear to naturally be in this multi-sensory world, the world of props (chairs are not chairs, etc.). We may dismiss this as something we have gone beyond or something too simplistic, but perhaps it’s at the root of enjoying life, meditation (awareness), and peak experiences.

So perhaps we have to go back then to when we got lost in the stimulus in an embodied way. Then we might rediscover more of an improvisational, multi-sensory, multi-resonant body.

The Multidisciplinary Body & Total Improvisation


I. The Multidisciplinary Body

Integration has been of great interest to me since residing here at Gomarduli Zen Garden. I mentioned in the last reflective article (Noguchi & Contact) that this space offers various body practices which could be supplemented with Noguchi taiso. But any practice of the body with enough of an open mind could be supplemented with any other practice of the body. Exposing oneself to various movement disciplines I argue is a tremendous way to approach body awareness and training.

Yet some specialists in any given discipline might argue that this is the path of the “jack of all trades, master of none.” I have even heard a Qigong practitioner once say that if one studies Qigong, one only studies Qigong.

But this frame of thinking can be detrimental to our personal understanding of the body and the creative process. At the extreme end, this state can be like repeating a word over and over until the word vanishes altogether. A plateau in progress is reached, a block. Specific practices can stay fresh not by indefinitely storing them in the freezer of their own systems but by allowing them to breathe with any of life’s interconnections.

Multidisciplinary study does not entail we will have no dominant discipline or dominant starting place. My starting place, for instance, is butoh. What this type of study entails is allowing space for the discipline to grow or shrink in accordance with the present space-time.

The multidisciplinary body is a body viewed from multiple angles, a kaleidoscopic body, a rhizomic body. Cultivating this body means becoming an excavator of body disciplines, digging down to any perceived roots and transplanting these roots (or parts of them) into other body disciplines to observe what will happen. This is the body as laboratory and the mover as mad scientist.

II. Total Improvisation

“Grownups were learning how to play again.” – Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (Beehive Scene)

What the multidisciplinary body is to the novel mover, total improvisation is to the novel improviser. Just as certain body disciplines can lose magic by being too confined within their own system, the same can occur with improvisation.

When one hears the term improvisation, one might already assume a strict confinement. The confinement comes in the improvisational genre. Is this a musical or sound improvisation, a contemporary dance improvisation, a contact improvisation, or a theatre improvisation?

But how about we allow for all of the above and more? What about the healing/somatic improvisation, ecstatic dance improvisation, presence/meditation improvisation, and sacred/prayer improvisation?

If it sounds like too much, it isn’t. It all happened 2 weeks ago here at the cafeteria of Gomarduli spontaneously. Multiple disciplines played out. There was no one dominating form of improvisation, but multiple forms playing together in harmony. The group was connected in a network of improvisational forms.

To name a few of the occurrences and to draw a picture of that night, at any given moment, there were participants: (1) dancing to the music as if in club atmosphere; (2) dancing in contact improvisation; (3) dancing in a solo formal or contemporary dance manner; (4) dancing butoh-like; (5) manipulating items of the cafeteria such as cups, water, and silverware (props often losing their intentional use); (6) improvising vocally across many ranges; (7) sound making from the space itself such as floor, table, chairs; (8) submitting to body actions resembling performance art such as being restrained and decorated or teased; (9) participating in devotional ritual (human puja); (10) engaging in seated meditation; (11) performing group fire ritual (with one candle).

This was a spontaneous total improvisation/jam (other names proposed are general improvisation/jam, non-genre improvisation/jam, and free improvisation/jam).

But what is this phenomenon? The theatre director Jerzy Grotowski experimented with such performances (performance artists might call them happenings). Grotowski organized what he termed the beehive (a form of paratheater) which was an open improvisation between 3 to 220 participants. (Kolankiewicz).

See the Beehive scene from My Dinner with Andre:

Grotowski himself, however, would go on to criticize his own creation on the ground that it breeds tropes and stock emotional reactions. This was a critique on the quality of the performance (Kolankiewicz).

But a total improvisation does not necessarily mean the quality of the performance or body practice has to be amateur. Performative quality will depend on the individual and their degree of multidisciplinary body, ability to embrace change, and ability to tune into both internal and external environment simultaneously.

Because Gomarduli has been already engaged in bringing various body practices, I say this facility is an ideal space to exercise both the multidisciplinary body and total improvisation.

In two weeks, the somatic guides Christine Cole and Nitzon Ledermann will arrive to bring us yet another body perspective to possibly use for our next magical total improvisation.

Kolankiewicz, Leszek, Na drodze do kultury czynnej. O działalności instytutu Grotowskiego Teatr Laboratorium w latach 1970–1977, opracowanie, dokumentacja prasowa Leszek Kolankiewicz, Instytut Aktora – Teatr Laboratorium, Wrocław 1978.

Noguchi & Contact Improvisation

Several years it has been since I have taken a movement class in something other than butoh or Noguchi taiso. Here at Gomarduli Zen Garden with its variety of movement practice offerings, I have been able to revisit movement practices of my past with fresh eyes such as Contemporary dance, contact improvisation (CI), and even yoga.

Being reintroduced, I could not help but to open an investigation in how butoh and Noguchi taiso could accompany or even possibly enhance at times these practices. Other disciplines can serve to inspire new visions for a dominant discipline. In my case, Butoh and Noguchi are my dominant disciplines.

Today in Otto Akkanen’s CI class, we entered into a water body that emphasized the least amount of muscular effort needed to move with a partner. Curiously, this concept of the water body is at the very core of the Noguchi practice. This is a Japanese movement technique that focuses on the body as a “water bag” with muscles acting as sensors.

As noted in my butoh manual, “Noguchi Taiso is one such movement discipline that serves to evoke the effortless body by drawing upon fluidity (water), gravity, and strings. Gravity is not fought against, but embraced.” (Koan)

Noguchi has been adopted as a body conditioning supplement for many butoh dancers. One reason may be due to the Noguchi body itself which can resemble the weakened, sleepy or “dead” body that the butoh dancer often dances. Another reason may be that the Noguchi philosophy is about allowing for maximum (or nearly maximum) receptivity of external influences. In both Noguchi and butoh, the dancer is actually being danced or “moved” instead of the mover doing the moving.

Four notable butoh artists with a base in Noguchi for instance include Yumiko Yoshioka, Imre Thormann, Minako Seki, and my mentor Julie Becton Gillum.

In the case of CI, I observe that quite a bit of muscle movement is often used (especially large, external muscles). As Otto apparently realized, the water body is one way to increase movement efficiency. Who doesn’t want to be a more efficient mover? Who doesn’t seek more flow?

So Noguchi (and butoh) could add a nice touch to CI, but it does not have to be limited to only that. I see endless potential in anything regarding movement, even everyday life movement.

Butoh has often utilized duet and group work in close proximity or close contact. Noguchi however has always been more of a solo practice, but finding ways to duet or group work Noguchi could prove useful.

As I continue to integrate Noguchi and butoh into other movement practices, the more discoveries will for sure be made.

Koan, Adam. Shadowbody Butoh Manual. Shadowbody. http://manual.shadowbody.com/nurture. 2021.