White Room Performance Viewing Guide

Originally I designed this information packet for some students coming to see the show, but I think it’s worth sharing to any audience member who wants to know a bit more about butoh. Contains information about :

  1. The Origins of Butoh
  2. Hijikata’s butoh-fu
  3. The relevance of butoh today
  4. Madness in a White Room
  5. Experiments with butoh and text

The full .pdf can be downloaded here

Butoh’s origins



In 1959 Tatsumi Hijikata (土方巽, teacher of Yukio Waguri, the director of “White Room”) began collaborating with Kazuo Ohno on a piece called “Forbidden Colours.” Involving homoeroticism and a live chicken, the piece outraged the Tokyo audience and was banned from the dance festival it was part of.


Subsequently, Hijikata began to create other “dance experiences” in the early 1960s, developing an aesthetic that was a deliberate rebellion against the traditional dance scene. It rejected codified beauty of Noh dance, the robust vitality of Western modern dance and the beautiful lines of ballet. Instead, Hijikata embraced an aesthetic that spoke of disease, decay and dying. He called his work Ankoku butoh (暗黒舞踏) or “Dance of Darkness.”

In the 1980s, butoh groups such as Sankai Juku began to tour abroad, garnering a new wave of interest in Europe and the US. Regionally, Butoh first gained footing in Taiwan, before coming to Hong Kong. Kazuo Ohno was featured in the HK Arts Festival in 1993, followed by Sankai Juku in 1994. Since then, a small community of butoh dancers has developed locally, first sustained by guest teachers giving workshops, and gradually practitioners such as Wilson Chik, Vinci Mok, Grad Leung, Tomas Tse, Ioku Ero Nikaido, etc developing collaborations and performances in their own right.

1. Do an internet search for images of “butoh”. How would you describe this image of butoh? How does it make you feel as a viewer?

2. Do an internet search for images of “modern dance.” How would you describe these images in comparison to butoh? What are the similarities and differences?

3. Beyond surface aesthetics, what do you think is the spirit behind what Hijikata and Ohno were trying to do with Ankoku butoh ? How might this be connected with what was going on both locally in post-war Japan and also globally during the 1960s?

Hijikata’s butoh-fu

delvaux2Unlike Kazuo Ohno’s improvisational butoh, Hijikata developed a series of choreographed movements using painting and words as sources of inspiration. These were subsequently noted and collated by one of his students, Yukio Waguri (和栗由紀夫).

Embedded in the script of the White Room are specific paintings that Yukio Waguri wishes the actors to use in the creation of their characters/choreography. For example, the actress playing Woman A may be asked to take on the pose of one of the nudes in Delvaux’s paintings. However, she must not only physically adopt the posture, but also use her imagination to experience the coolness and the moonlight on her skin. Through the actress’ imagination, a number of tiny, almost imperceptible nerves and muscles become activated, giving her a foundation in which her acting can be more nuanced and detailed.

4. What are some of the advantages of improvising vs. having a set choreography / text when it comes to performance?

5. How might the method of butoh-fu be useful to an actor?

What is the relevance of butoh today?

In Jungian Psychology, the “shadow” aspects are the unconscious parts of our identity that our conscious selves prefer not to identify with. We prefer not to think of illness and death, even though these are experiences that we all must touch in our lives. We prefer not to think of mental illness, even though 1 in 4 or 5 Hong Kongers will be affected by a mood or mental disorder at some point in their lives. Long working hours, packed living conditions, high performance expectations even from a very young age in this city can lead to a lot of stress and unacknowledged emotions.

dsc_9519As a form, butoh gives voice to these aspects that society considers taboo or shuns away from. That’s why as it is as relevant in post-war Japan as it is in present day Hong Kong. Traditionally speaking, the theatre and the arts have taken this role in being able to allow individuals and a community to address what is going on locally and offer a possibility for catharsis (e.g., see the proliferation of art that came out of the Umbrella Movement). Butoh is a visceral, physical manifestation of this form.

6. Can you think of concrete examples of art (performance, visual or literature) that has been in response to something previously unacknowledged in a community?

Madness in White Room

The characters of the White Room are based on seven patients from Carl Jung’s clinical studies. Why enter this extreme range of human experience? Because ultimately, these characters may provide a mirror in which we may see ourselves. In Jungian terms, it is only through the acknowledgement and acceptance of our shadow aspects by our conscious selves that we are able to live fuller, healthier lives.


Central to the theme of “White Room” is the question “What is madness.” One thing that Prof. Winton Au and Professor Chiu Chui-de emphasised in our symposium “Butoh x Madness” is that we often think of mad people as a small minority of people that are very different from us. However, the truth is, most of us share some degree of the characteristics or traits with people with clinical illness, it is only a matter of being able to distinguish and have the social skills to know when to display or shift states.

For example, Woman C has Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). Actually, the majority of us shift between different social selves, and may behave, talk or even think differently depending on the context. These selves can even bleed into each other. For example, if I have just broken up with my boyfriend but I still have to “pull myself together” and go to work, my different selves are colliding into each other. Furthermore, our sense of identity is even more fluid in dreams. There we can shift into different people and have experiences that are out of context in our waking reality. So it is not that “normal” humans cannot or do not experience the range of emotions and experiences that “mad” people can, but rather, we are more able to distinguish “reality” and/or have the coping mechanisms to function socially.

7. Can you think of some “mad” characters in the plays you have studied? Why do you think people want to experience aspects of humanity in the theatre that are more intense than their everyday lives?

Experiments in Butoh and text

In 2012, Yukio Waguri was invited to Hong Kong as part of the first HK Butoh Butoh Festival. Since then, he has been invited back repeatedly, and he began some choreographic experiments in the region. In particular, he began interested in exploring the intersection between butoh and text after meeting actress/director Bonni Chan and writer/dancer Wilson Chik.

In particular, Waguri became fascinated with the idea of how the state of one’s body can affect the voice. As he notes, “When we got a cold, just only with that reason, our body will be changed differently from the normal state.” What then, will this transformed voice be like? Just as a dancer can determine the distance of his gaze or how large he wishes to pitch her movement, the actor can also imagine the distance he wishes to pitch his voice or the type of material the sounds waves need to travel through.

8. Before the show: If you were the director of a play, how can you imagine using butoh-fu to help actors with their text? (You can pick a recent project or text you are working on as an example).

9. After the show: Could you see how the actors were using butoh-fu? Can you describe a specific moment in the play where the actor’s voice was transformed along with their body?



“White Room” 白房間
Part of the International Black Box Festival 2016
10-13 November, 2016 at HKREP Black Box Sheung Wan Civic Centre

Text/ Director: Waguri Yukio
Cast: Waguri Yukio, Bonni Chan, Hofan Chau, Dorothy Chu, Rebecca Pik Kei Wong, Anson Lam, Tomas Kh Tse, Wilson Chik

Presented, produced & performed by: White Room Research Collective
Co-presented by: Hong Kong Repertory Theatre


Picture references:
[1] Still from “Hosotan” (Story of smallpox) (1972 production / black & white / short version; directed by  Keiya Ouchida)
[2] La route de Rome, 1979, oil on canvas, 160 x 240 cm Collection of the Paul Delvaux Foundation, Belgium

White Room production photos by Maximilian Cheng



  1. “I also want to be a mental patient,” said a friend who just saw The White Room. I have not inquired further why she had such a strange thought because I understood and I shared the same feeling. Nothing pleasant to be disturbed by fear that could not be countered, sadness that never dissipates, and distorted reality that fails to be comprehended. In a state of madness people are the most genuine that they do not communicate behind a mask. What we dearly yearn for is an authenticity in interacting with ourselves and others.

    Utopia is definitely in our mind and heart. Inside there we are free. It is not an easy feat to be in touch with our genuine thoughts and feelings. Even harder is connecting with others genuinely. While we are all very mindful of living in a social world that (too much) authentic self-expression is unwelcome, and in a functional and orderly world no one should live only by their own rules that the underlying principle is a respect for others, is it a fear of rejection or feeling of vulnerability that we often become too protective of our true self that we are always hiding behind a mask? The beauty and allure of the White Room is the approval to be true to yourself without the concern for judgement. People in the White Room do not have a shared reality, they do not communicate but they connect. People outside the White Room have a shared reality, they communicate but they do not often connect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When people without any psychology background ask me what I study as a social psychologist, I used to make a dichotomy from clinical psychology which people are more familiar with by saying that I do not deal with “crazy” people. Recently I would add to my explanation that I study “crazy” people who are good at covering themselves up. Is there not a bit of craziness in every one of us?

    Depressive realism refers to a phenomenon that depressed people are more realistic that non-depressed “normal” people in correctly estimating chance events. Say in a dice game non-depressed people think that if they could get a larger number if they roll the dice themselves than if someone else roll the dice for them. Non-depressed people, however, correctly understand that it does not matter whoever rolls the dice. Normal people have an illusion of control that, even if they are not the God of Gambler, they could do better if they could have control in their own hands. This is irrational; this is evidently craziness. Psychologists give it a good name, efficacy, to refer to this belief that we could make something happen. People who are more efficacious are indeed more likely to succeed. So this bit of craziness is actually quite good!

    Craziness, madness, psychopathology, in my layperson understanding, is best understood as abnormality, i.e., a deviation from the “normal” that is defined by the “majority”. You will be considered quite abnormal today thinking the earth is flat, but quite normal during Galileo’s times. Galileo might also be considered quite normal during this times if he were able to contain his radical thinking within himself without imposing his idea onto other people. It is the choice between revealing your pearl in your throat and risking death. Unfortunately, the social pressure on anyone who is different, who thinks different, or who feels different, to conform with the other people or the society at large does not seem to have lessened over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

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