A Moving House of Mourning

“Life catches up with form,” said Hijakata Tatsumi, one of the originators of butoh. As a young man, he had planned to be a modern dancer in the Western tradition. After World War II, he rejected what he had learned. The first butoh performances, in 1959, were wild and sexually explicit, and had their performers move in the “squat, earthbound physique and natural movements of the common folk.”


Two weeks before Christmas, 2014: thousands of New Yorkers filled Sixth Avenue to protest police violence and to memorialize the lives of black people killed by the police. Like protesters across the country, they held their hands above their heads, echoing one of the last gestures of Michael Brown; they chorused “I can’t breathe.”

The day after the grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner, I had attended another protest in Lower Manhattan, where I followed the corporeal cues around me and held my hands up like that, a posture of innocence I’d never had to assume in real life. We shouted Eric Garner’s last words. Doesn’t it feel strange to say, a white friend whispered under the crowd’s roar. It did: to be white and shout with full breath, with full agency, the words that were a dying man’s last attempt to be recognized: if not as a man then at least as a human body which needed air.


At a residency in Indianapolis in 2013, I was introduced to butoh by a young theater artist who often incorporated the form into her performances. We began by learning a classic butoh stance: knees springily bent, arms bent at the elbow, wrists relaxed and eyes half-hooded. The first day we worked together, we squatted like that for so long I could feel my body settled into itself, or settle for itself. In the rest of my everyday movement I could usually detect the part of me that stood at a distance, trying to get away.


Standing behind me at the protest in Foley Square, a tall white man, whose voice carried over the crowd, changed the pronoun from I to we. We can’t breathe – the shift cleaned up the body’s urgent chemistry, converted it to an anesthetized symbol for the failure of democracy, or whatever. It seemed, at that first protest, that protesters of different colors occupied different densities of air, weighted with different meanings. I held my hands up, but when I did, I was impersonating Michael Brown. I held my hands up, but I was echoing the black woman next to me. I did not feel that the gestures belonged to me, and they didn’t. In her essay “Choreographies of Protest,” dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster writes how the men of the New York ACT-UP die ins in the ‘90s did not, at first, feel that their own bodies were subjects of the demonstrations: “…it took me a long time until I felt like it was really me doing those things,” one protester recalls.


After standing in the butoh stance for a long time, after shuffling back and forth between the walls of the theater in this stance – not lifting the heel from the ground — I sensed, as if for the first time, the density of my quadriceps, those muscles instrumental in jumping, lifting, and setting things down, and now in suspending myself between apparent actions: raising and lowering, jumping and crouching, presenting the body as whole and alive and burying it in itself. This new body a chord that refused to resolve, leaving the air around it knitted with questions.


Anusha Kedhar, another dance scholar, recently wrote about the prevalence of gesture, the primacy of the body in the Ferguson demonstrations. She suggests what I felt instinctively, that “hands up, don’t shoot!” and the die-in, among other choreographic elements, did not and do not have only one meaning. For black protesters, Kedhar writes, “hands up” is a collective assertion of innocence; but also the cruel reminder of that assertion’s failure to save a life. It is a show of organization, of being of a collective mind. It is an exercise of the freedom to demonstrate, the miracle of being able to move at all. These gestures also create a kind of living memorial, a moving house of mourning.

It’s in that creation that white people can occupy the same creative space as black protesters: here is a chance to amplify the voices and bodies of the dead, to loop them and blast them, not to create a new track over top of them. A chance to exercise one’s body in a foreign, unfixed place: between the self and another, between life and death, between freedom and being surveilled.

Many static memorials contain within them a prompt to mourners or visitors. At the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing victims is a small field dotted with empty chairs. Shortly after the memorial’s opening, a park ranger told me, a visitor began to leave coins on one of the chairs in memory of her son; soon, the museum manufactured plastic coins for visitors to leave, and visitors left other ephemera, like dried leaves and grasses from the surrounding landscape. The creation of such rituals is the collaboration between architect and mourners – without one, the other would flounder.

In contrast, the architects of the living memorial of the Ferguson and New York protests were also the first ring of mourners, forming a tight space in which to define the shape and bounds of the memorial as well as the ways other mourners could meaningfully interact with it. The choreographic elements of protest – raised hands, the die-in – that Kedhar identifies are large and public on purpose; they seem to be modeling those modes to allies and onlookers.

But among some white protesters, the idea that people must come to the protest as themselves rather than adding to a collective voice, rather than merely observing the rituals of movement and speech defined by the originators of the movement, runs strong. In the days before the march up Sixth Avenue, a young white woman wrote on the event’s Facebook page her rules of order for the protest: white people, she suggested, should not put their hands up or hold signs reading “I Can’t Breathe.” Instead, white people should narrate in the third person: “He can’t breathe” or “He couldn’t breathe.”

Even if this young woman genuinely wanted to question the role of white people in the protests (e.g., are we audience members or performers?), such attempts to proscribe participation in the most visible collective aspects of the protests feel misguided. They ignore the fact that the demonstration is not, in this case, purely symbolic or narrative. The purpose is not to retell a familiar story in many-colored voices, but rather to radically display and amplify black life. There seems to me to be no “right” way for white people to participate in such a demonstration other than to make it as corporeal and visible as possible: four thousand more hands raised, a hundred more bodies dying-in in the street.


Iwana Masaki: “Every butoh performance itself is an ultimate expression; there are not and cannot be second or third places. If butoh dancers were content with less than the ultimate, they would not be actually dancing butoh, for real butoh, like real life itself, cannot be given rankings.” On the last day of the residency, when we presented our workshop performance, we had added a ball of red yarn and a tin of baby powder to our slow, eyes-half-shut movements. We had developed stories for the characters we would become on stage that had no words, but that had their key vocabularies: fraying, rocking, swinging the arms, hugging the chest. The only chance the audience had to experience these stories was through the movement of our bodies, which we hoped left the ghost of a life behind them when they exited. We had been on our own for a few days now. Like every time, we had never done this before. Half-seeing, we began to occupy the space between one another the best we could. We bent at the knees, let the body settle for itself, and followed its lead.

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