Dance Butoh performance by BadUnklSista. Photo by Eric Gillet

Published on May 9th, 2013 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Bad Unkl Sista’s Butoh Transcends the Sense of Self

Butoh performance by Bad Unkl Sista. Photo by David Fratto

Photo by David Fratto,

There is a wide array of reactions to a Bad Unkl Sista Butoh-inspired performance, ranging from confusion and shock, to wonder and amazement. But no matter what the reaction, each member of the audience — and the dancers themselves — leave the performance feeling somehow changed by the experience. Anastazia Louise, the artistic director and choreographer of Bad Unkl Sista, the Butoh-inspired dance troupe, has developed her own individual anatomy of movement that is unlike any other.

Butoh is an avant-garde, psychodrama dance form that emerged as a reaction to World War II in Japan during the 1960s. Struggling with the continued cultural and political unrest as the Japanese were being forced to accept Western values, Butoh became a form of expression for young rebellious dancers to explore the human condition as well as their own personal history. The result was a dance form that was completely new and different from Noh, Kabuki or western dance styles.

Butoh performance by BadUnklSista. Photo by Mike Estee

Photo by Mike Estee,

Loosely translating into “stomp dance” or “earth dance,” early Butoh dancers explored everyday, organic movements, like an old, hunched woman carrying a basket of rice against the wind, or a child splashing in a puddle. The dance form has since transformed into a way of exploring the unconscious mind, suppressed urges and constrained impulses. By stripping away superficiality, egotism and societal expectations of how to move, the body can become a blank page to write its own story.

Louise learned about the meaning of Butoh from her teacher, Diego Piñón, who founded Butoh Ritual Mexicano.

“‘Butoh challenges us to empty our ordinary judgments, expectations, habitual actions and needs,'” said Piñón, “‘to allow the emergence of a deeper self, propelling us to awaken and explore all human qualities, both subtle and outrageous, beautiful and ugly; to touch, if only for a moment, our inexplicable matter — the human soul.'”

The main difference between Bad Unkl Sista and other Butoh groups is the fact they do not actually consider themselves a Butoh group. Rather, they use Butoh as a way for the dancers to discover and expose themselves. The group considers every performance to be a conversation between the audience and the dancers, and a way to study the vulnerable human experience.

Bad Unkl Sista performances remind us that life isn’t all polite pirouettes and controlled pliés. Butoh’s twitching, distorted faces and sudden jerks are considered to be more realistic representations of humanity and the unconscious mind.

Bad Unkl Sista. Photo by Faern

Photo by Faern,

Louise’s first training workshop with Piñón lasted 13 long hours every day for seven days. Piñón did not show the students any video material, or even dance for them, so Louise had no preconceived notions of how to dance during the hours of exercises. Instead, dancers had to tap into themselves.

“In the Butoh training, I discovered a profound sense of permission to release all preconceived notions of myself and the world around me,” Louise said. “This freedom transformed my personal dance and created an open, vulnerable quality to my performances.”

Louise’s choreography is tight and definite, though some of the pieces include what Louise calls “jump-off” points, or a movement of solo flight. Group pieces have movement phrases that cultivate the energy of each dancer and translate into a cohesive group energy.

“Once the container of the performance has been set,” Louise said, “the dancers are then free to move on their own. Each piece has a story line or, rather, a meaning to all of the movements, and the movements are not random.”

A Bad Unkl Sista performance might include dancers that are hunched over, twitching and shivering with their face twisted into a distorted mask. They might move in a slow procession before thunder claps and they disperse through the audience as light flickers unnervingly. It is this unique blend of theatricality and choreography that makes a Bad Unkl Sista performance truly memorable.

Butoh by Bad Unkl Sista. Photo by Julia O Test.

Photo by Julia O. Test,

When choreographing each of the pieces, Louise and Music Director Goyo Aranaga are in constant dialogue with each other. Musical ideas are often inspired by motion, and movements are grown from the seeds of sound. Weaving together various styles of music, Aranaga creates a haunting blend of classical and contemporary music.

“My attraction to Anastazia’s work is partially due to her evolution and personalization of the form,” Aranaga said. “Traditional training has cultivated a deeper understanding of Butoh and its application to Bad Unkl Sista’s unique voice. Bad Unkl Sista provides me with the ideal platform for my creative expression – it’s really powerful work, and collaboration far beyond anything I have experienced before.”

Costuming is also an important part of each performance, and Louise’s one-of-a-kind theater-meets-couture costumes evoke an otherworldly presence, especially when combined with Butoh’s traditional white skin paint. To Louise, the paint represents the erasure of a personal story. The paint deconstructs the dancer into a blank canvas that allows them to transcend their own bodies.

“I am very conscious of my energy when making costumes,” Louise said. “While I am sewing, I am considering each dancer’s personal story, the music, the trajectory of the piece, world issues and my commitment to making a difference.”

Butoh by Bad Unkl Sista. Photo by Julia O Test.

Photo by Julia O. Test,

During performances, many of the dancers feel as though they are leaving their body, letting the movements take over.

“[Dancing] feels like a vacuous un-feeling, non-feeling and pure portal of feeling overload gushing out with extreme uncontrollable force all at once,” dancer Amber Eckley said, “even when your movements are very small or slow and subtle. The self is gone. The self is everything. The self is everyone. Everything is sensitive, poetic, monstrous, pure, raw, unadultered, honest, and flows without end. It turns time into molasses – you experience a big, thick, languid, epochal daydream of time-breath.”

“You should try it sometime,” she added.

Daniel Yasmin, one of Bad Unkl Sista’s percussionists, feels a similar transcendence with each performance.

“When I’m playing and truly present in the performance, I allow myself to ‘leave’ my body and embrace what I describe as the ‘erotic attractor at the center of the universe,'” Yasmin said. “My fleshy mortal body becomes the vessel in which the creative signal is amplified, much like a radio.”

Butoh by Bad Unkl Sista. Photo by Faern

Photo by Faern,

Dancers and musicians also use the performances as an emotional outlet. For dancer Alvin Gainer-Molina, performing is extremely liberating and evokes a myriad of emotions.

“I take my practice of Butoh in a very transcendent state of mind, where my body is aware of my movements but my mind is transfixed on a whole different level,” Gainer-Molina said. “Expressing these ‘silent emotions,’ as I like to call them, are my constant drive and why I decided to join Bad Unkl Sista.”

The work that Bad Unkl Sista does not just entertainment, but art – in its purest form. Performances tears down barriers between people — dancers, musicians, artists, audience — to reveal how delicate and permeable these boundaries really are.

“Rather than focusing on displays of virtuosity and theatrical ‘ta-da’ moments,” Aranaga said, “we strive to change minds and open hearts – starting with our own.”

For more information about Bad Unkl Sista and for a list of upcoming performances, visit their website at

Main article image by Eric Gillet,

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About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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