Workshops with Ken Mai

Workshops with Ken Mai 15.-17.07


I really appreciate how Ken Mai made a proper introduction to the philosophical roots of butoh on the first day of workshops. It created the basis and also helped to reflect on what we have done so far in all the workshops and why is the approach like it is.

He described his own route and training (martial arts, acting, zen) that led him to study butoh with Kazuo Ohno. He also talked about meditation and zen-buddhism that hold a great role to understand the philosophy and background of ankoku-buto.

The key word and concept is emptyness – butoh starts from emptyness and is heading back to emptyness. As Hijikata Tatsumi said: „The highest aim of butoh is the disappearance of the body.“ According to Ken Mai,that principle is similar to samadhi in ashtanga and hatha yoga – after pranayama, asanas, diet etc you will finally arrive to the 8th stage which is your purest essence – your pure consciousness. As Ken Mai stressed, there are no oppositions, no genders, no age no knowledge there-just pure being. The oppositions and dualism that belong to the Asian thought traditions, just like yin-yang, light-dark are melted into one.

He also described the Japanese understanding of life circle:birth; life or existence in human form; then death. It was interestingto hear about Japanese death traditions, for instance,how the family spends one whole day with the vacated body, drinking, eating together, sometimes sleeping one night in the same bed. It comes from the strong belief that life-death opposition, binary relation is actually an interconnected relation and death is a natural part of life.As he said, it is important to notice that death has beauty too.

A human being i emerging from pure consciousness (a child in mother’s womb, reacting to her emotions, states, heartbeats, breathing) and  going back to this pure consciousness when he/she dies. It is very important to not have a fear of death, but rather to get to know it, get familiar with death as a phenomenon which is included in our life experience. Ken Mai even talked about transforming your organism through lifestyle, diet and exercise so that you could avoid heritable illnesses that run throuh your family. The ancestors are also one of the key elements, as they are very much appreciated and honoured in Japanese society and culture.

Between birth and death lie life and different layers that are put on us by education, society, norms, regulations, knowledge. The aim of butoh is to remove all these, to become pure again.

Ken Mai also introduced us to the fact that vegetarian diet helps to transform your body and is more healthier option. He told us how he lost 8 kg-s after going vegetarian and to the surprise of us all told he is 56 years old. He looks like 32 so everyone were just stunned, including myself. But he continued,saying that self-discipline, regular yoga practice, all the physical exercises (release, relying the energies that are already surrounding us etc) and mindful lifestyle have their part to play in that.

He talked a bot about martial arts, referring to the aspect of relaxation and release, just like we practiced in Minako’s classes. He also described the process of absorbing energy from the nature and described how different elements (that are also known in Asian cultures, mythology etc) like water, fire, air are already strongly present in our bodies: there’s heat inside our bodies, water in our cell, air in our lungs and cells.

Butoh dancer’s task is to actually awaken his/her sense –the bodily perception is essential for dancer and for anyone who works with body. So going back to one’s senses that have been numb due to the distance between human being and natural environment, all the tech-developments etc. Instead of scrolling people should go out and see, smell, hear,touch the real world, believe Ken Mai and I totally agree.

Relying on nature is essential: observing the energies and movements that are in the nature to form a natural way of moving.

The focus is on the individual body – exercises are just to practice different qualities, every body has to find out in time, how to embody those qualities, how to use the invidual body with its structure, capabilities etc. Butoh does not also have any technique  – the movements are created based solely on natural movments, and observing the nature and human body, sensing the patterns.

Total transformation is taking place using imagination,inner world, concentration and bodily capabilities.

Imagination holds the key rolein butoh,according to Ken Mai. You have to fully picture, feel and experience a certain quality and then embody it with your whole being – body, mind and soul.


The warm up and streching was based on yoga asanas and reminded a bit of Masaki’s class.

Then we did already improvisation on theground: moving like seaweed, blooming, imagining how it is to a flower. We were asked to trulysense all around us: the floor, the energy from the ground and the core of the earth, absorbing air, filling our lungs with it, sensing the heat (fire inside our bodies), feeling, sensing everything surrounding and within ourselves.

We continued with several transformation/imagiantion exercises: embodying 200 year old person; blind; madman; cat; chicken, prostitute, holy munk, rose. The interestingpart was the fact that we had to transform in a second, as we were walking normally in the space and had to change when another person touched us. And to change back to normal at next touch. So during one round we changed and changed back in an instance for 3-4 times.

We finished with a longer improvisation, embodying rose blooming (from standing position) and decaying.


We started with similar warm up but on the secind day, the emphasis was on improvisation and partner work. But firsthand we developed movement from wave patterns,going from warm up to an improvisational exercise where we were asked to develop our own movement from the wave basis and to complete with an improvised poetry in out native language. That truly was something, it was very different and interesting to do that, aswell as to watch and listen to others doing. I’m used to work with words, yet in a written form, on paper. Spoken word is always something else, as I’m accustomed to present my text only when it is once written, then edited, sometimes changed or developed  a bit. To just create a poem in situ and to say out the words as soon as they had formed or come from somewhere was a ttally different experience. To hear the others, murmuring beautiful words and phrases in their own language created a striking atmosphere. It was a real poetry in motion, I felt like my words were spoken not only my voice but my whole bodily being, my muscles, bones, joints and skin. The words become some kind of a mantra, it felt like we were allowed to express the nature of the universe, sometimes it was like prayer, at another moment it was just pure ode to the beauty or a raw expression of emotions. It was an ephemeral experience: as soon as the the movement and words had found their way out, they smoothly disappeared into oblivion.

Ken Mai stressed throughtout the whole experience to sense our bodies connected to the earth and energies all the time, to recieve and offer energy, which is the basic principle of movement. Offering and recieving energy from the mother nature itself.

We continued with imagination exercises (that Ken Mai himself calls poems and that are the key exercises in butoh training): firstly just moving around in space, then embodying various qualities. The first exercise was gradual moving, that included isolation of body parts as we were asked to feel and dance the water in our cells at first only inside our right arm, then it moved further to our head, then left hand, then torso, then hips and finally legs and feet. So we started to grow a certain movement and quality from one part and then gradually widened to other parts and levels. Then for instance we had to imagine and embody a flower blooming for our left eye, after that blooming from mouth. Then we continued with million ants running around on our backs, who then moved to feet and finally to face. These exercise are extremely important to get a beter contact with your bodily articualtion capabilities and, of course, physicial and mental imagination.

These exercises were folloed by „blind“  ones where we were moving around for approximately 20 min in row with eyes closed. Firstly alone, then already finding others and communicating through touch and contact. This kind of exercise is a purely sensorial experience, driven by body instinct, kinaesthetical intelligence and touch. It feels like a 6th sense is opening when you are cut from the habitual visual information. Hearing, touching, smells  – they all sharpen to orientate in the space as your body becomes more and more sensitive.

Then we continued with working in pairs, moving on impulses, creating physical dialogues. One partner was the reciever, moving on the impulses given by his/her partner, letting to control and manipulate his/her body. As I’ve done the same exercise in contemporary classes, it was not perhaps so much the feeling of novelty and opening my senses to a totally new experience, rather it helped me to deepen the sensory experience that comes with that. I felt how I was already more capable o listen to the touch and pressure coming from my partner and to move or change directions and levels accordingly.

Finally we were gathered int he centre of the workshop space and exchacing partners, switching between the roles of giver and reciever and creating several small dialogues with different partners. Ken Mai always told us to be delicate, soft, to respect others and to rely more on energies coming from eachother than on actual physicality. It is foremost communication through gentle touch and energies.

These kind of exercises are full of intimacy, delicacy, ask and return. One has the choice to go closer, the choice to refuse or go along. So it is basically an open invitation to dance with one another. Connecting and communicating on kinesthetical level includes letting go, switching off the mind, letting go of all control. In the core, there is letting go and acceptance, the key aspects in butoh, as Hijikata as said. And there lies an extreme act of trust in that. With eyes closed, it feels like freefalling.


At the first part of the last workshop, we worked with opposites: feeling and understanding the dualistic principles of movement and dark-light,birth-death. We did several energy exercises,based on yin and yang duality. For instance to greet the sun, open the chest and rise, feeling the reception of energy from the nature and surroundings, then pulling it in, lowering, feeling the moon energy which is passive  -yin. Ken Mai even asked us to imagine then when we go down, the moon is inside our back and when we rise, the sun in our diafragma

He stressed continuously, how important it is to accept everything on individual and on general (universal) level: all the emotions, including sadness, happiness, anger, and also to awaken senses, to actually feel the world, the nature, the energies and the unity with the whole world.

We continued with different pranayama breathing exercises- directing the energy, gving and recieving, switching the bretahing nostrils. We also practiced pranayama’s triangular breathing: from right, then holding your breath and a pose, then breathing out while releasing the pose and again, starting the same with left.

Ken Mai described the aesthetics of Japanese culture,giving examples in some photographs or pictures he had brought with him.

ma – in between, the empty room, silence between things

wabi-sabi – a kind of broken beauty, beauty in the darkness or amidst decay, loss etc

The concepts of ma and wabi-sabi turn our attention towards the beauty in found darkness and decay, sorrow, broken beauty, a kind of nostalgic feeling. He told how in the core of butoh lies the idea of being an empty vessel, that you can fill with a quality or essence and let it go to embody another essence. And that creates a chain of transformations – butoh is concentrated on metamorphosis and freedom. This emptyness is also coming from Japanese understanding of life, death, existence and culture.

During the days passing and with all the new knowledge gathered in workshops, I began to notice some interesting things or phenomenons also in the surrounding space-  i.e the city of Torino. The experience and the talks on the rots and principles of butoh helped me to notice different aesthetical nuances in the city, to turn my attention towards decay that lies within beautiful settings or vice versa to notice small traces of beauty even in the garbage and decomposed settings. I found that related to the japanese aesthetics, where concepts of wabi-sabi and ma are kept in the focus. I have also studied Japanese culture, including these principles of aesthetics before and it was very interesting to relate these things coming from butoh practice and philosophy to my earlier studies of Japanese aesthetics and culture. For instance, I found some parallels with some Japanese author’s written texts and butoh. The concepts of ma and wabi-sabi are beautifully described in Tanichaki Junichiro’s book on the principle of shadow and darkness in japanese culture, art and interior design.

We did an improvisation developed from the ball figure, energy between two hands, changing levels, directions, the size of the ball while simulatnously concentrating on imagining the actual ball, its measures, colour, smell, structure, surface etc. We then did an abstraction on the same theme, widening, adding individual movement and style to the movement while still keeping in mind the ball.

Finally we did two longer improvisations:

one embodying a small plant growing from seed, breaking out from the asphalt or concrete

Secondly, Ken Mai showed us some pictures from different artists, for instance Mucha or Dali and asked us to join an image or pattern from one of the pictures to use as a basis to develop our own solo improvisation. I chose Dali, of course, and his melting, liquid watches.

Ken Mai’s workshops were overall very emotional for me and provoked some strong emotional and mental responses that were also expressed by bodily and kinaesthetical means.


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