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Why a Japanese performance art celebrates weakness

Butoh, a form of Japanese performance art, brings weakness and sadness to the surface in a society that often suppresses those feelings.

Gadu Doushin moved from his native Japan to study engineering at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, but his true passion was dance. After years studying South Indian classical dance with Ragamala Dance, Doushin began to study butoh, an avant-garde Japanese performance art developed in the late 1950s.

Unlike forms of dance that praise strength of the body, butoh celebrates vulnerability. In the late 1950s as it was developing, Minamata disease, a neurological disorder resulting from mercury poisoning, was emerging in Japan. The performance art drew on the motions of people suffering from the disease and incorporated them into the form, according to Doushin.

Doushin said butoh forces people to come face-to-face with sadness and fear. “Our society [has] so much dogma about feelings,” he said. “Everybody’s supposed to be just happy and joyful, or just not feel anything. But without feeling — without noticing what you’re feeling and actually confronting and dealing with it — it’s almost like not really living.”

Watch a full performance by Doushin below.

Videos produced by Brittany Shrimpton. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation. 

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