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

July 13, 2021

“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.