ダンス ファックス

New York Dance Fax

Special Report: Masaki Iwana, Dancer & Choreographer by Eri Misaki

The Endless Search for Individual Method

Iwana was born in Tokyo in February of 1945. He was a sickly child, bothered by rides in trains and cars. His mother studied noh, and he saw many performances of this classically Japanese theatrical art, eventually becoming adept at yo-kyoku or noh chanting.

In 1960, he enrolled at the Shiki High School run by Keio Gijuku University, a prestigious private university. As part of his studies there, he became acquainted with agriculture, which spawned a love of working with the earth. Three years later he matriculated to the parent university, where he majored in economics at his father's behest, instead of his own choice, literature. Upon graduation in 1967, he joined the flagship station of TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) but soon tired of Japan's mammoth corporate world, leaving the television industry to become an actor in 1969.

During the next seven years as a struggling thespian he began questioning the need for dialogue. For him, words seemed a disturbing distraction. He had wanted to dance since leaving TBS, but, in the Japan of that day, dance was simply something that men did not do.

In this period he met 土方巽 Tatsumi Hijikata, now generally acknowledged as butoh's spiritual founder. In 1971, he acted in a collaborative effort between a theater company and practitioners of Hijikata's ankoku butoh (dance of darkness). He found Hijikata eccentric, but was nevertheless impressed with several of the butoh dancers, most notably Yoko Ashikawa.

Iwana finally decided to become a dancer in 1975 at the relatively ripe age of 30. After arduously studying ballet, modern dance and gymnastics, he began experimenting with his own bodily movements. He hesitated to characterize his movements as 'dance', let alone 'butoh'. And for lack of any titular form or common classification, decided to invent his own entirely new method of bodily expression.

At first, he imitated others, but soon discovered that no matter how much he tried he could not improve upon the originals. The next five years were frustrating. He did, however, discover a methodology of restricting his own movements and rigidly controlling the surrounding space. In the end, he postulated that standing still in a limited space was a valid expression, despite being diametrically opposed to the concept of dance as movement.

From this realization, he developed a number of solo dances, performed as a series under the marquee 'Masaki Iwana Dance Performance.' In 1979, he began dancing nude. Though his dance was improvisational in the extreme, he made a conscious effort to metamorphose his naked body into an 'object' devoid of sense and emotion. In his mind, he was not merely shedding his costume; he wanted the audience to see the naked body as an object sculpted by nature.

In a parade of five monthly, experimental performances called 'Invisible' danced at the turn of the decade at Tokyo's Kid-Eye-Luck Hall, he stood naked under the changing illumination from a skylight. As the hour of each installment passed, the changing sunlight changed the hue, tone and shading of his skin. To him, this was akin to changing his 'human skin' to 'the skin of dance'; from becoming totally exposed to completely invisible.

In 1983, 12 years after their first meeting, Hijikata asked Iwana to join his company in performing 'Plan-B-Ji-Mosha' that Hijikata choreographed and produced. Iwana never formally became a member of the troupe as he is not by nature a joiner. He did, however, learn much from Hijikata's pioneering concepts of butoh before this legend died in 1986.

Right after dancing for Hijikata, Iwana was invited to Festival La Chartreuse Villeneuve les Avignon in France. There he danced 'Hasu no Kuni' (Lotus Land), a 50-minute performance sans music that won high critical acclaim. This was a major turning point. At this time, he began enunciating his idea that unless he thought of a human body as a human being, he would not be himself. This gave rise to the thought that a costume should not be a decoration but a means of personal betrayal and a way to turn oneself inside out. From this, he went on to realize the possibility of both sexes existing in a single body, followed by the recognition that both male and female were coexisting within himself.

He gave performing life to this duality in his 1985 'Namanari' (Half Demon), considered another milestone in his career. In this particular piece, he wore the feminine dress of Europe's 19th-century haut monde to explore aspects of his female side. While strong and content in his masculinity, he wanted to understand the woman that he felt had lived inside him since childhood.

This performance also marked the first time he referred to his movements as 'butoh', although admitting he still did not feel that butoh could serve as a generic description. 'I called it butoh to widen the definition and to make the definition obscure', he recalls. He also remembers this dance as a fork on his path of self-discovery, where he moved away from his earlier belief of the body as an object to the body as an entity accompanying spirit and emotion. He continued to dance in this vein until 1992, when he first performed 'Mizuhiki ni Kocho' (Papillon en Offrande).

From this point onward, he began focusing on the directionally moral dichotomy between 'highness' and 'lowness' that also existed within both the male and female sides of himself. None of the factors, he says, exist separately. For example, by recognizing one's individual lowness, 'lowness' is automatically transformed into the 'highness' of enlightenment. Some of this derives from the texts of Jodo Buddhism that he studied and could relate to, even as an ardently non-religious person.

Wisdom from the Old Healing Arts

Iwana's family gives his career mixed reviews. His father, a strong-willed, self-made man, disapproved of his son's abbreviated television career. He had wanted him to use his economics degree as a springboard to success in commerce or politics. He was even angrier when his son became an actor, one time pointedly switching off the television while the rest of the family was watching a drama Iwana was in. Far from being offended himself, the offending son felt only that his father simply did not understand.

Iwana recalls his mother was even worse. A traditional Japanese housewife since her marriage, she sees his dance as something not quite right. 'Even after two decades', he relates with a bitter smile, 'she still keeps telling me to return to a normal, practical life.'

Without a regular paycheck either as an actor or dancer, Iwana once supported himself by practicing the traditional healing arts of yoga and acupressure. Besides putting food on the table, they provided food for thought about movement and dance.

From yoga, he learned to open his own body to others. To Iwana, those who heal others through the sort of transference of energy characteristic of the traditional healing arts either use their own internal reserves or channel external energy from their surroundings. When he was studying yoga meditation, Iwana himself experienced this channeling of external energy. He believes that this experience has led to subjecting himself to the forces of external energy and turning his body into an object in his dance. In doing so, he melds his own existential body in the space surrounding him, calling this technique the 'dance of non-existence.'

Acupressure, which involves manipulating the body's pressure points, also influenced his dance. While most believe that all humans have the same pressure points, Iwana discovered that these points differ from person to person and from time to time. This realization impacted on his thoughts about form and movement. He came to believe the impact of the obvious and the shades of subtlety can best be embodied through how he carries his body during movement rather than the assumption of external forms or positions. At this juncture, his conceptual approach to dance shifted away from creating shapes to creating movement.

"I Never Expected to Feed Myself by Dancing…"

The need to feed himself by teaching yoga and practicing acupressure was frustrating, eating away the time he could devote to dancing. At 43, he became divorced and decided on a yearlong sojourn in France starting in 1988. He intended to return to Japan as soon as his meager savings were spent, looking at the move as a mere break, to which no one objected.

But shortly after arriving, he started getting invitations for paid performances. 'This was something unimaginable', he says. 'I never believed I could actually feed myself through dance.' Even now, after a decade of earning a living through performances and holding workshops, he finds it hard to believe that ephemeral dance can be translated into hard cash.

He also opened his own atelier after his arrival, calling it La Maison du Butoh Blanc, the French equivalent of Hakuto-Kan, the name of his Tokyo studio he had built in his house in 1985. La Maison du Butoh Blanc has since evolved into an officially registered business.

Iwana claims no disciples, although many of the same people regularly attend his workshops. He explains that in dance in general and in butoh in particular, one must dance from one's own motivation, to develop one's own individual method by oneself. Hijikata was famous for his admonition not to feed on another's legacy (to dance with another's methods). In looking at those many who attend his workshops, Iwana calls them simply 'friends', studiously avoiding the appellations 'student' and 'disciple.'

Japan's Industrially Structured Culture

Iwana has an annual habit of returning to Japan once or twice with the aim of spending two months altogether. While appreciating butoh's acceptance in Europe, he is nagged by the suspicion that it might stem from the dance's seeming exoticism and that there exists a latent danger that a dancer can be spoiled by this sort of adulation. He says that since butoh originated in Japan, many there have a critical eye for it. His returns, he says, are to showcase what he has been doing overseas.

But Iwana has become troubled about his native culture. Today, he sees it dominated by young people; something unhealthily non-contaminated yet industrially structured. He sees in Europe a cultural sturdiness, tempered by war, revolution, civil discord and other more or less cataclysmic happenings that serve to renew and force adaptability to the new. Japan, contrarily, suffers from a refined fragility formed by accumulated layers of isolated and inherited traditions. He is also concerned by a modern Japan whose youths have become prey to an adult-dictated consumerism. He believes that such a mindless capitalistic abuse is infecting the entirety of Japan's culture and economy. 'Our culture was built on oral traditions passed from one generation to the next but this no longer is emphasized', he decries. 'Today, in its stead, Japan is emphasizing things that require no risk, things that are almost entirely commercial. All of this creates a horrible nexus that is the opposite of culture; merely a situation.' This situation masquerading as culture Iwana finds peculiarly vexing.

In all of this, Iwana says butoh dancers are seen as anti-social. 'This is not so', he says. 'A far better definition would be "beyond social" in that they stand on the side of life. In Japan, the life of the individual is constrained by community and larger social pressures. Life therefore becomes a tool to execute social goals and ceases to be something existing of and by itself. We butoh dancers want to exist on a broader plane, one that encompasses a side of a universe that is also the home of insects, animals, plants and all the rest of nature.'

Iwana is similarly critical of Japan's current choreographers. 'It seems', he laments, 'that their primary motivation is to impress the audience. Not that this is entirely wrong, but being too concerned with what others see, feel and think involves a loss of perspective toward the all-important questions of what dance actually is and why dancers dance.'

He is fond of recalling Hijikata's advice about dance, encapsulated in the coinage Han-Gi-Tai-To-Kan which loosely translated means 'burn yourself, sacrifice yourself, criticize yourself, maintain your honesty and retain nature as your guide to all things.' Iwana himself says that Mother Nature is all-embracing and all-accepting and that this recognition is intimately connected to his concept of dance.

Today, the 53-year-old Iwana sheds 20 years when he dances. Iwana claims he forgets his age while performing. Nevertheless, as a solo dancer without disciples or a troupe, age must be a practical consideration physically and financially. As a remedy, he has recently begun a 10-year workshop program at his Normandy home. The program gives him a goal to fulfill, supports him mentally and manifests his desire to keep dancing.

Meanwhile, he continues to open himself through deep concentration and the widening of an already amazingly broad mind in his self-set and self-absorbing quest for an ultimate richness in dance.

– Eri Misaki, March 1998

(Source material: Dressed in Water — Masaki Iwana Solo Dances '79–'93, written by Masaki Iwana)

About the author Eri Misaki


Born in Takamatsu, Kagawa-ken, Japan. In 1982, she enrolled at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York. After graduation, she danced with Elio Pomare Dance Company based in New York City. Ms. Misaki established Dance Project SEQUENCE Inc., a dance organization in 1992, and began publishing the magazine New York Dance Fax and New York Dance Schools/Studios Guide.

"Generally, I do not like nude dancing, basically because the naked body is the most difficult costume to wear. Humans have natural sexual desires and an instinctive sense of shame. When I see a nude dancer, I sense the audience's and feel my own attention shifting away from the dance itself. I must forcibly remind myself that what I am witnessing is art. At the same time, I start asking myself why the choreographer wanted to use nudity and if the dancer really understands the choreographer's intent. In short, nudity in dance bothers me because it prevents me from concentrating on the dance itself.

"I have at times, however, found nudity a beautifully artistic complement to a performance. This is especially true of butoh, whose exceptional dancers can use nudity in ways that are not provocatively distracting to the audience. Masaki Iwana certainly falls into this category. His own, laboriously honed methods and styles of dance use nudity as a purposeful means. Iwana, now living in France, danced his Legend of a Princess Named Shokushi last November (1997). Through his abstract movements, he movingly conveys the overpowering sadness of a woman forced to live in a solitary world where poetry was her only emotional outlet. When Iwana suddenly strips himself bare, he becomes a pure human figure, an act that moved me with some very real yet inexplicable feelings."

– Eri Misaki, March 1998