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by jackï job

Butoh and the Third Space: Inhabiting Difference and Difficulty in Academia and the Performing Arts in South Africa

The paper Butoh: Lingering between Life, Death and Transformation in the Arts was delivered at an inter-disciplinary academic symposium entitled The Third Space at the University of Cape Town1, South Africa in May 2016. In this chapter I use that paper, referred to as “the performance text”, and its accompanying video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuIxeVZtUg0), as well as reference the actual performance to explain how my socio-political, artistic and academic positioning in South Africa grapples with Homi Bhabha’s (1994) notion of the “third space”.

I hold the third space as a liminal consciousness and argue that the embodiment of liminality and asynchronicity can bring about a re-imagining of processes of transformation in South Africa. In the context of this paper, asynchronous refers to how the deliberate sandwiching of a formally spoken text and a technical, muscle-bound, linear movement, created an uncomfortable sense of discord between what was conveyed and received in aural, visual and visceral realms. For me, the potential for creating new knowledge lies within this ostensibly discordant space. I will show how the design and content of my 2016 performance paper connects to ongoing discourses about and processes of decolonisation2 in South Africa. In addition, I describe the challenges and advantages of using alternative modes to deliver academic papers. I argue for the embodiment of difficulty and strangeness as a key strategy in developing processes of transformation in South Africa.

The performance paper was originally designed to re-articulate my hybrid identification as dancer and academic; it deliberately situated me in-between conventional notions of academic and artistic presentation. In other words, symposium papers are conventionally read to an audience of relatively like-minded academic peers and dramatisation or theatricality is generally avoided. By contrast, conventional artistic presentations, like dance, are physically active, usually vocally passive, and performed in theatrical environments where costume, lights and music add value to the spectacle. Given that these two forms are usually separate I deliberately sought to integrate them. The text of my performance paper was verbally articulated from memory and made complex with my simultaneous butoh-esque solo physical performance.

My use of multiple channels of delivery meant that, within an academic structure,

the work remained performative, in the sense that it was a physical delivery of text that conventionally assumes the character of being spoken from a relatively passive body. It re-imagined typical South African performance aesthetics, which are strongly influenced by African and Western aesthetics. Such typical perspectives carry a particular cultural format for the presentation of formal academic papers. By contrast, the mixed style of my performance paper exemplified a symbiotic relationship between what was being physically performed and what was being proposed via the academic content. Simultaneously, the embodiment of my text may have served to heighten and subvert both conventional dance and conventional academic expectations. In creating the performance text I believed that an analysis of the quality of the dance performance and the academic text, each in its singular format, would be insufficient in speaking back to the theme of the symposium. However, how did the combination of dance and oral performance as an academic engagement of my topic sharpen the argument? Why has this type of delivery generated a positive reception of a performed paper?

Broader social and political contexts in South Africa continue to inform my strategies in both performance and academic research. However, South Africa’s colonial history and its offshoot, apartheid, are but two amongst several reasons that significantly complicate the perception of individual cultural identities in South Africa. To me, the third space is a blurred space where cultural spheres overlap (Bharucha 2000), and this in turn creates identities that are not necessarily coherent or complete. I integrate my physiological female gender, racialised Coloured classification (described as neither White nor Black in the South African Registration Act 1950), and related social, economic and political experiences in South Africa, in order to physically interpret material from multiple objective and subjective points of view. In so doing, I re-imagine my identity (Erasmus 2001) and move beyond an identification that is based on certitudes and hermetic descriptions of oneself, others and the surrounding world.

My research findings and recommendations are thus borne from within me and made manifest through me in a butoh-informed performance paper. Through my personal dance practice, my body becomes a site for interrogating issues that may be difficult to articulate verbally. Exploring alternative ways of balance, release and struggle are but a few ways I have found to embody parallels with the socio-political milieu in South Africa. I argue that uniform systems of identification within the performance arts as well as academia have no place in South Africa and should dissolve in order to find new ways of growth that include difference. This will require that individuals acknowledge and accept that developing strategies of transformation will require a search for multiple tools to enable that transformation.

Butoh and liminality
The Japanese contemporary dance form, butoh, is used as a tool in my performance paper to interrogate how notions of difference and strangeness can open up potential ways in which the body and persons can be perceived in an interdisciplinary context. Drawing from Japanese aesthetics that view life and death as a continuum, I was able to use butoh to demonstrate how transformation happens in-between the polarities of beginning and end, and yet remains uncertain.

The performance starts from a foetal image, signifying birth, and then proceeds with one long, slow, straining sequence, irregularly syncopated with awkward balances and sudden jerks that constrain breath and sound articulation. I move especially slowly towards an upright position and end up standing. Overall, the movement language seems hesitant and unbalanced, exposing a vulnerability that hangs between the continuum of life or birth in the beginning, and motions toward an inevitable end. However, a stepping action in the final stages of the presentation suggests incompleteness and the mode of delivery projects an onward journey. Similarly, the conclusion of the written text is punctuated with an ellipsis. Against the background of the 2015 and 2016 student protests at universities in South Africa and the threat of a re-occurrence in the near future, this sense of uncertainty and continuing effort implied in the ellipses is intended to add contextual nuance to the performance paper.

I find it helpful to interrogate the notion of liminality (Turner, 1995), which, from a corporeal perspective, I define as being in-between oppositional states.

Ketu Katrak describes liminality as “a space for the female protagonist to […] resist domination and attempt to reconnect with their bodies and communities” (2006: 2). To me, an understanding of my own liminal identity means refusing absorption into broad narratives of race, gender and class. I argue for more complex, nuanced definitions of oneself, others and the environment. Therefore, my sense of liminality recognises my cultural habitus (Bourdieu, 1986), but is not only located within the community. Similarly, Jacob Dlamini responds to the uniform, box-like physical and mental stereotypes perpetuated in attributing blanket notions of struggle to all Black people in South Africa and states: “For many, the past is a bit of this, the present a bit of that and the future hopefully a mix of this, that and more” (2009: 12). This chapter, as well my performance paper, in conjunction with the video, will show how an embodied thinking process that avoids singularity or uniform conceptions of identity could add meaning to the Arts, as well as re-imagine and transform the status quo. For me, the performance paper was a foretaste of liminal experiences that are necessary to subvert structure, roles and relationships encumbered by the many categorisations of self (Turner, 1995: 75). Understanding Turner’s notion of liminality as a phase between the past and the future, in the context of this performance paper, I interpret the moment that lingers before delivery as a past, and a future as the moment following the end of the presentation. I describe the performance paper as a liminal experience because it resulted in a sense of individual distinctness which, I believe, could provide a template for the reformulation of reality, as well as incite people to different processes of action and thought.     

The performance paper deliberately challenged the audience as well as myself to negotiate a space that was both corporeal and intellectual. It positioned my thoughts and feelings as experiences that existed in between the performative and the scholarly. A few individuals in the audience seemed to be challenged by the simultaneity of my speech and movement in what may have been experienced as a largely academic space – the symposium. In discussion with audience members after the performance paper, a few admitted to assuming that the voice, which was mine and live, was a pre-recorded soundtrack. Some acknowledged an involuntary need to categorise the seemingly conflicting, different actions: in other words, as the delivery of the paper progressed, they became aware that they were either listening or watching, as opposed to doing both simultaneously. However, as soon as this realisation became conscious, they were able to integrate the two senses, and in a way, open themselves to feeling the performance paper. Several felt moved by the difficulty of the delivery and conveyed to me that it brought their attention to the struggle of transformation. In relation to a South African understanding of transformation, I ask: What does transformation mean if one already begins such interrogation from a fluid, energised perspective?

Further, in relation to strategies and tools of decolonisation, a reflective analysis of the audience reactions made me realise how the passage of time was an important element for some individuals who, in the course of the performance, became open to discovering the familiar in the unfamiliar and vice versa.

I find butoh a useful tool to re-interpret and re-position myself beyond the reductive, singular thinking and limitations embedded in institutions and social interactions in South Africa. The mixed style of delivery in the performance lecture suggests how the application of butoh principles could generate a different consciousness of the body and enable individuals to create associations with hybrid elements of identity, ultimately disrupting hegemonic truth claims and racist superiority. Moreover, butoh enabled me to embody qualities of ambiguity, strangeness and difficulty, which I believe, are inherent to ongoing transformation processes in South Africa.

Thinking body, dancing mind
The contemporary dance curriculum3 taught at several high schools in South Africa refers to American and European dance companies, such as Alvin Ailey or Pina Bausch, as exemplars of contemporary dance technique. Both these companies hold the ballet form central to their dance training and performances. In South Africa ballet as a form is made complex with its embedded colonial aesthetics of race and class. My performance paper referred to ballet and showed how this culturally loaded dance form can transform and be interrogated using butoh, phenomenology and interculturalism. The performance paper included butoh principles as a tool to deliberately shift embedded, singular perceptions and patterns of line, form and technique. By utilising butoh, I argued for incorporating strange or relatively unknown and uncommon ways of perceiving identity into established ideas and ways of self-representation. Katrak claims that different ideological configurations are needed to liberate colonised people: “Colonized peoples […] are adept at using and transforming the master’s tools, […] as well as to talk back to the colonizer” (2006: 38). In the performance paper I refer to the hybrid Caribbean language, Patwah4, to explain how assimilating butoh principles within dance-making in South Africa, could forge a new dance language created from the notion of rebellion against the established order. This, I believe, could launch a creative revolution that is aligned to a less singular and more fluid perception of social and artistic identities.

The performance paper made parallels between Patwah and Afrikaans, a language inherited from Dutch colonisation in the 1600s. Due to the colonial repression of indigenous languages and the enforcing of their foreign language, Afrikaans is still spoken by the majority of Black people in South Africa today. In terms of subverting the power of this language, which is associated with the oppressor, the performance paper made particular reference to how Afrikaans has been reclaimed by the Coloured community in Cape Town, in its colloquial combination of cuss words, slang, Cape Malay 5, Dutch and English. The combination of different languages has created a particular dialect, which in turn distinguishes the colloquial Afrikaans, as predominantly spoken by the Coloured population, from the way it is spoken in the capital, Pretoria, for example, or any other city for that matter.

The spoken delivery of Afrikaans in my own hometown of Cape Town “blurs the White man’s tongue, tone and power” (Dr. G Samuel, Personal communication, Cape Town, 2017). While a particular phrase used in the performance paper, “jou ma se”, (literally translated as “your mother’s”), has no direct translation, it is embedded with nuances of vitriol and crass humour. It is the equivalent of an adjectival phrase, but the noun that it would qualify remains unstated. The phrase itself can therefore remain open and will be understood by those who have an intimate grasp of the cultural nuance. In this way, the particular form of Afrikaans used in the performance paper emphasised a sense of my individual identity in relation to a community that defies a uniform description and resists hegemonic constructs of colonial languages. Like Mesthrie’s (2008) notion of varieties of English as opposed to the authority of Queen’s English, I used Afrikaans to ‘inhabit’ (Ingold, 2000) a third space and make sense of my multiple social, political, artistic and scholarly experiences from the perspective of a thinking body and dancing mind, as expressed by Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch (1992).

The style of delivery attempts to identify elements that could trigger transformational processes. Through embodied imagination, understood in Gilbert and Tompkins’ (1996) terms, I experienced how the palpable spirit or presence of a person or thing can penetrate the psyche and wilfully bring about a particular movement or action. In the performance paper, I chose to convey a predetermined verbal script that was connected to a fluid yet undetermined physical action. The successful delivery required a meta-physical focus that was not solely dependent on my degree of concentration and discipline, but also required the external assistance of a voice prompter. This does not mean that voice cues were offered each time I seemed to hesitate or pause. Rather, whilst remaining physically passive, my assistant maintained a connection with me by embodying an energised restraint that listened before deciding to intervene, and thus waited to act. This forced me to dig deep and allow real sensations of vulnerability, loss and difficulty as I navigated my way through the text. At times the asynchronicity of the delivery resulted in my verbal re-sequencing of the written text. This simultaneously destabilised my assistant and compelled a sharp attention to various nuances of my performance. On the few occasions where I required an external prompt, it felt like an inner voice was guiding me. In this way, the delivery enabled an embodiment of the asynchronous physical and cognitive challenges that I believe are intrinsic to transformative processes in South Africa.

The experience makes me wonder if current transformation processes of individuals in South Africa require an external element, which is linked somehow, but remains secondary, and which is attuned to the intuitive responses of the individual. I believe that it does, and that we can discover the nuances of intervention in moments that are discordant, different and difficult. I am of the opinion that we are not just our bodies but are also bodies of wisdom from multiple sources within and around us. My interrogations thus far substantiate the idea that transformation processes require imagination and a focus that is willing to engage with the unfamiliar. My performance practice continues to explore the nuances of these statements ( job 2017, 2019).

The nature of my performance paper collided and collapsed different elements to enable a meeting of differences. It blurred polarities and in turn, expanded the limits and assumptions we hold about ourselves (Bharucha, 2000). The aim of this hybrid presentation, finally, was not to put forward an ideology of fusion as a tool for transformation and cultural or interdisciplinary homogenisation. To me, the body itself (and particularly the body in South Africa) is already in a liminal space perceptually and thus at the threshold of transformation of a different order. In order to decolonise learned structures and develop spaces conducive to transformation in South Africa, I hold that more individuals may need to explore aspects of asynchronous, difficult, strange and vulnerable identities.

To receive the full impact of this article, I invite you to read the performance paper6

That follows in conjunction with viewing the video footage7.

The Performed Text
Butoh: Lingering between life, death and transformation in the arts
In 2013, a brief experiment with Cape Town City Ballet, or rather, what I should call a prologue to an experiment, involved my conducting a series of butoh workshops with a few dancers of Cape Town City Ballet. Along with other similar experiences, this particular interaction re-enforced my belief in the value of re-imagining individual identities, which in turn aligns with re-imagining our human interactions in a multicultural, multi-lingual South Africa.   

I think dancers speak a number of languages and if Dance were a country, it could be described as multi-lingual. If that country were South Africa, the official languages would be African Dance, Contemporary Dance and Ballet.

Against the socio-political contexts of South Africa, ballet occupies a central position that many wish to re-appropriate. Given the complex and even obvious racist, sexist and colonialist issues embedded in ballet, compounded by the general perception of its being a White dance form, it could be seen as a microcosm of other – # Must Falls – struggles in the country. Three years ago, I wanted to see how the application of butoh principles in ballet could shift the intention and way of expressing ballet’s movement language. If the application of butoh could potentially influence the thinking and performance processes of ballet, it could in principle offer a prologue or a way to reclaim or re-appropriate colonial places and spaces.

Understanding places, in De and Sarkar’s (Levine & Perera 2002) terms, as a lived experience where people, cultures, languages and artistic expressions unfold, I asked, how could the multiplicity of languages and cultures of dancing, moving, expressive bodies, migrate from one economic, social and political context to another, and in that process transform and re-imagine actual spaces? And in the process, how could it be possible to realise a personal connection to that context, even though it might be perceived as different? On a personal level, I hope to find and potentially use my authentic voice in a process of this nature.

Authenticity, or truth, admittedly is a loaded, relative and subjective term. Yet, most recognise it in action, on conscious and even subconscious levels. It is a kind of knowing that is felt in the gut. I wish to dance-speak, from that source. The phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, said the essence, which I interpret as truth, is located not above, but beneath the sensible world (1968 : 220). This made me wonder if and how I might find truth up on tippy-ballet-toes. A question possibly answered by another philosopher, Robert Sokolowski, who claimed that in the search for truth, or authenticity, “there needs to be a digging into cultural things that we directly encounter, and an unpacking of them down to their elementary categories in order to unbuild them” (Sokolowski 2000 : 167). Part of this talk thinks of ballet as the cultural thing that needs to be dug into and suggests butoh as a tool to help deconstruct it to its basic intention – which according to the Russian ballet star, Anna Pavlova, is “to bring something from within ourselves and thus make our stage personalities alive and vital” (quoted in Magriel 1947 : 61). Many might agree with me that this quotation has resonance across the performance arts.

Therefore, beyond ballet, there are several questions related to performance that one might ask. Such as, what are the basic elements carried and embedded within our bodies that need to be unbuilt? How is it possible to bring something personal and vital to performance that could unbuild and re-imagine binary and reductive classifications and significations of oneself, others, places and spaces? Given the long-standing authority, power and influence of the established order, what kind of process could disrupt the hierarchy of knowledge ownership? How does one find and utilise a fluid, energised, body that is geared towards a process of transformation?

In a brief answer to these questions, I suggest that some attention needs to be directed at how butoh principles, as well as its perception of the body and surrounding worlds, could be applied to performance disciplines. But an additional question remains that has more direct pertinence to the theme of this symposium. Where does that re-imagining and transforming position oneself, others, places, spaces? I believe that that positioning is not over here, neither is it over there, but in-between, and can be found through an intercultural-phenomenological experience of the body. Rustom Bharucha claims “in-between spaces are found when we open ourselves up to other spheres and find overlapping in blurred spaces that bring us together” (2000 :122).  For me, that overlap happened when I experienced butoh in Japan. Framed within theories of interculturalism and phenomenology, the 2013 prologue to an experiment, which I call butoh-ballet, added lateral perspectives to my proposition that the application of butoh principles could disrupt hegemonic forms, thus presenting us with the potential of an in-between, difficult to articulate, even uncomfortable site, that definitely has individuals physically and even meta-physically, experiencing a re-imagination of identities in South Africa.

A word, liminal, comes to mind. That of being on the threshold. Not inside, not outside, and I would add, not above and not below, but teetering, even lingering, somewhere in between. Mikhail Bhaktin (in Katrak, 2006 : 9) suggests that a positioning outside of time, space and culture is immensely important to expanding one’s creative understanding. My lived experience identifies with this inside-outside positioning in various ways. Between 2003 and 2011, I lived in Japan, and was thus removed from South Africa in time, space and culture. During this time, my worldview shifted as I developed an appreciation of asymmetry and restraint, qualities and dynamics not readily supported in the West. On returning to South Africa, which I maintain is also Westernised, this insider-outsider’s frame of reference persisted. I lived within my local South African community,  but felt separated from a persistent reactive behaviour. I also felt separated from the broader national-identity propaganda, namely, ‘Simunye, We Are One. I continue to vacillate in between. Also, as a dancer, my barely mentionable ballet foundation is steeped in a socio-economic and political history that coincides with apartheid, which effectively and intentionally isolated me from conventional training trajectories followed in the ballet world. This left me in the in-between space of contemporary dance, a dance form often positioned in between ballet and African dance. (As an aside, much like the labelling of Coloured people in South Africa).

With broad reference to South African dancers of African dance, contemporary dance and ballet, my identification as an independent solo performer for the last 20 years, has further set me apart from the majority of South African dancers whose skills are honed in ensembles and companies. Therefore, my lived experience, both as a South African and a dancer, has positioned me in an in-between space that “complexifies” my bearing of a whole-hearted allegiance to a specific side. Most of the time, I feel movable connections, energised with the potential for re-imagining my identity and that of the status quo.

The co-founder of butoh, Ohno Kazuo, says that when the personal life and performance merge, an authentic portrait of an artist emerges (Ohno & Ohno, 2004 : 158). My personal life is mixed, intercultural—a description understood in Richard Schechner’s terms, as being on my way from something towards something. He adds “else” and says, “Towards something else” (2002 : ix). But to me, the nature of that something remains to be seen, with literal eyes, as well as with the eyes of understanding.

Butoh entails the body in research. A question is formed, then expanded on and deepened in the practice of Butoh. So, to synthesise my previous questions into one question: How can one re-imagine oneself, others, places and spaces with a fluid, energized body that is geared towards the process of transformation?

Hoe werk daai dan? Ek is hie, maar oek hie. I am, omtrent en heeltemal soe. Jy sien my dan, of hoe? Miskien? Maybe? Yes sir, naai ma’am. Wat kyk jy? Vra vir jou ma.  Ja, joune. er…jou ma… er…Daai za Lady wat nogal try ne. Talk is cheap, but actions, daai is wat praat. Daar sittie sergeant. Kyk! Look and listen. Dan verstaan jy…alles…soema alles…en a hele klompie meer. Jou ma…

Ketu Katrak (2006 : 35) refers to how the hybrid language of Patwah enabled the people of the Caribbean to rebel against the status quo. I connect this to how Afrikaans was and is used amongst the Coloured people in Cape Town specifically. Patwah and colloquial Afrikaans—the language of the colonizer, is re-designed, shifting a sense of ownership, and, in the process, forges a language on independent terms. For me, butoh is net soe. Ja, butoh is just like that. In the country of its birth, Japan, one could, for example recognise traces of the predominant religion, Buddhism, particularly in its sense of union with nature. Japanese butohists, coming out of a society strongly focused on the importance of the communal whole and orderliness, developed the form, and much like the speakers of Patwah, they were intent on rebelling against the order.

In the context of dance in South Africa, and ballet in particular, embracing butoh philosophies might disrupt an underlying Christian foundation and its ideas of beauty and goodness. Butoh remains unattached to worldly objects,  yet finds the body connected to everything. A Westernized aesthetic might describe it as undefined, abstract, mystical, and dark. For me, these are but a few of its embedded characteristics, which, when applied, could create a sense of borderlessness and freedom in the body. In phenomenological thinking, darkness, in combination with a sense of error and vagueness, enables a rebellion against the status quo. Ja, butoh is net soe. It’s just like that. It embodies a rebellion against the status quo. Unlike ballet, primarily focused on perfection, precision and its perpetual upward and outward reaching, butoh demands an inward direction, looking into darkness. Once in the dark, after a few moments the eyes readjust, and it becomes possible to see light in the dark. The eyes, both physical and the eyes of understanding, change and readjust. And this subtle shift, I believe, allows for an authentic artist to emerge.

From looking into darkness one might think of death, a subject most want to avoid. But death is inevitable. Both butoh and phenomenology support the importance of interiorising death, intermingling it with life, and remaining cognizant of a constant cycle that, once embodied, becomes less frightening and more uplifting. Death and life — both interwoven in the fabric of time. Butoh and phenomenology perceive all the elements of time as elastic and always interlinked. With a sense of the past, present, as well as the future, always interlinked, one is not limited to a particular time frame, as I am in this presentation. I believe that jumping across realities of the past, present, future, and even performance disciplines, as I have attempted to do today, enables a journey into histories of one’s body and all that one is connected to, and allows both you and me, the observer and participant, to imagine, to anticipate….Something…. Secret…

jackï job (2017) performance paper: Butoh Lingering between Life Death and Transformation in the Arts, Hiddingh Hall, UCT



jackï job’s independent, professional dance career began in 1994. Since then, she has conceived more than 60 original works, with performances in Africa, Asia and Europe. job lived in Tokyo from 2003-2011. During this time, she engaged in dynamic collaborations with an array of eclectic artists and served as a guest teacher at a few universities across Japan. job received her MA in dance research from the University of Cape Town in 2014. Since 2016, her PhD research interrogates the meaning of liminality and its impact on the perception of personhood and transformation in South Africa. She is currently engaged as a lecturer across the Dance and Drama Departments at the University of Cape Town and intends to still be spiritedly engaged with the Arts beyond 90.



1 The event was held at The Gordon Institute for Performance and Creative Arts (renamed the Institute for Creative Arts in 2016), and is situated within the University of Cape Town’s Humanities The institute holds interdisciplinarity, live art and public spheres as key themes in their facilitation of research projects in the creative and performing arts.

2 In 2015 the University of Cape Town experienced student protests relating to the perpetuation of colonial ideologies within the The campaign “Rhodes Must Fall” shortly followed by “Fees Must Fall” exposed underlying political and racial tensions between staff and student bodies and created a general sense of uncertainty about the future of the university. The student protests forced a re-thinking of academic and financial processes, as well as socio-political representations within the university procedures and structures. At the time of writing this article, several issues remained unresolved and threats of recurring student protests were looming.

3 The curriculum also includes African dance and urban dance styles such as hip-hop.

4 Following the Jamaican spelling in Politics of the Female Body (Katrak 2006).

5 Cape Malay is a language spoken in Cape Town predominantly in the Muslim It bears traces of Indonesian and Malay languages, brought to Cape Town by the Dutch slave trade in the 1600s.

6 This is the originally written text that my voice-prompter Analogous to the nature of live performance, the spoken text diverted from the original sequence in parts.

7 The side camera angle and low volume in the actual audio-visual documentation have no deliberate intent and merely reflects the spatial and technical logistics of the day.



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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions