BUTOH CRADLING EMPTY SPACE Book Review — The Dance of Darkness

“Each dancer, through a process of experimentation, looks for new ways to make butoh hers or

When looking at the cover of BUTOH: CRADLING EMPTY SPACE, we see a dancer biting her lip and crossing her eyes while adorning white face makeup. Her hair is up and she wears what looks to be a floral dress. In the bottom right corner and on the top left corner, we see phantom images of the same dancer— her legs and face are translucent copies of the center photo. The background image is pitch black.

What is going on here?

BUTOH: CRADLING EMPTY SPACE Shows the Mind-Body Connection

Butoh is what’s going on here…

The cover photo is of Yoko Ashikawa dancing butoh. We can see through her facial expressions that Ashikawa isn’t simply performing for an audience, but is having her own experience during this dance.  After reading Butoh: Cradling Empty Space, we realize that the cover photo is also showing the connection between the mind and body of a butoh dancer.  The phantom images are a metaphor for how butoh makes the viewer, and the dancer themselves, feel.

Tetsuro Fukuhara (Japan) performing Flower Secret at Triskelion Arts, Brooklyn, November 18, 2017, hosted by Vangeline Theater/New York Butoh Institute Photo by Michael Blase

The separation between mind and body fades as they dance.  The mind-body link is laid bare.  The unusual facial expressions and body movements that are characteristic of butoh are putting consciousness – the all-important aspect of butoh—on display.

From Butoh: Cradling Empty Space we learn that butoh isn’t characterized by smooth and perfectly choreographed movements, though there are choreographed forms of butoh that we associate with Western dance styles. Since the focus is on the consciousness, there is much variation of movement within the dance, and there is more importance put on what is going on in the mind of the dancer, as opposed to just their body movements.

Brenda Polo (Colombia) in Unknown at the New York Butoh Institute Festival 2019, hosted by Vangeline Theater/New York Butoh Institute. October 20, 2019 Photo by Michael Blase

To help explain butoh further, an expert in butoh and the author of this book, Vangeline, gives us a comprehensive overview of the avant-garde dance form— from its benefits, challenges, cultural implications, and how it affects the brains of dancers. Vangeline seems particularly interested in the perspective (such as, what is butoh to the viewer? To the dancer?) when one asks the question “what is butoh?”. Throughout the book, we get to see these different perspectives that enlighten the reader about butoh.

BUTOH: CRADLING EMPTY SPACE is a Comprehensive Overview of the Art Form

The book begins with a history of butoh that covers its roots in Japan and explores its founders, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. In a textbook-like fashion, we are exposed to a variety of topics that describe butoh and its effects on the body, brain, its social impact, and more. This book isn’t necessarily one for light reading— it’s for those interested in a deep, comprehensive dive into the topic of butoh.

Eugenia Vargas (Mexico) in UMBR.A—trilogia de la sombra para una interprete (UMBR.A—shadow trilogy for a dancer), Centro Nacional de las Artes, December 2, 2017, Mexico City Photo by César Alberto Guzman

Throughout the book, we see photographs of what seems to a butoh newcomer such as this writer to be an odd form of dance.  Yumiko Yoshioka squats in front of a bowl of light (that may hold a candle or a light bulb) with her face and head completely covered in a skin-colored cloth, making it appear that she is mummified. A photograph of Eugenia Vargas shows her dancing butoh while covered in what looks to be plastic bags and spattered blood, a contrast to one butoh shape called the embryo. All the photos of butoh dancers performing are done against a pitch-black backdrop, perhaps one reason why butoh is often referred to as the dance of darkness.  That nickname, and also its moniker of a poison that gives life, also speak to the dance form’s history as being, in part, a response to World War II  and the exploration of life and death the war provoked.

In addition to photographs, Butoh: Cradling Empty Space includes many diagrams and other visual aids to help illustrate and describe the scientific phenomenon of butoh. We especially learn how the form strives to bring science and art together.  The book covers topics such as consciousness, brain waves, information processing, action potential, stimulus, muscle awareness, and more. Additionally, Vangeline explains what she means by the phrase in the title --cradling empty space. You too—even non-butoh dancer or non-dancer -- may find yourself inspired by the book’s information about the brain to want to learn more and apply these learnings to daily life

Butoh: Cradling Empty Space is a great fit for anyone looking to learn more about the brain and the dance form of butoh. Warning: this book is academically written, so people should shy away if they’re looking for a light read or have no interest in butoh or dance.


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Price: $35.99

To purchase a copy, visit the Vangeline website for BUTOH: CRADLING EMPTY SPACE



Nichole Gould
Nichole Gould

About the Author: Nichole Gould

If you’d met Nichole as a child, you may find her writing and illustrating her own “books”. By taking printer paper and heavy-duty stables, she constructed a makeshift book to write stories and draw accompanying pictures. These stories often followed the lives of a dog and a cat.

Today, she does things a little differently and her writing covers topics of disillusionment, nature, family, homecoming, and growth. She attempts to tackle these topics in an experimental and dreamy way, through both nonfiction and fiction, and sometimes, when she’s feeling confident, poetry. Nichole also spent a semester in Oregon, studying writing and hiking among the moss. Although she misses traveling, she enjoys exploring the magic of the Great Lakes in her home state of Michigan. When she’s not writing or traveling, you can find her reading, bookstore hopping, looking for her dream job as a recent grad, or hanging out with her 16-year-old cat, Kyle.

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