The Dreaming Body

A conversation with Paul Michael Henry

Performance and live art are a key strand within Dark Mountain. The manifesto's call for an 'uncivilised art' has led to innovative collaborations with both theatre companies and individual artists. Meanwhile, the wider theatre and performance world has begun to wake up to the Anthropocene, producing work that is as likely to be found in a forest as on the stage. In the first of a new interview series this spring, Dougie Strang speaks with one of physical theatre's most exciting artists.
is a writer, performer, and storyteller. He sits on the Dark Mountain Steering Group and has co-created and directed many of Dark Mountain’s on site performances, including Liminal (at Uncivilisation Festival) and The Night Breathes Us In (Festival of the Dark, Reading). He lives in South West Scotland by the River Ae.

Paul Michael Henry is a Glasgow-based dancer, performer, and musician, who uses his body to explore, and to counter, the trauma of social and ecological collapse. He has performed in theatres and at festivals throughout Europe as well as in the US and in Japan. His work crosses boundaries between dance, ritual, and physical theatre. Paul is artistic director of UNFIX, a performance festival that returns to Glasgow for the third year at the end of this month. I spoke to him recently and asked him about how he came to make the work he makes, and about Butoh, a Japanese dance form that is central to his performances.

 

Paul Michael Henry: I didn’t grow up in a culture that was supportive or that provided a framework to hold my life, one that was aligned against what I perceived as the destructive forces of capitalism and consumerism. The only form of support came via the Catholic Church, which just didn’t do it for me. Initially I was drawn to traditional left politics, but I was also – fruitlessly – looking for a spiritual dimension. I got involved in the Glasgow punk music scene, but by my late 20s I’d run out of steam. I couldn’t remember why I was making music, and I was still trying to figure out a way of understanding what I saw around me, in wider society. So I followed a hunch to start focusing on my body and began digging into my own practice, working on dance; and then I discovered Butoh.

It was a term I’d heard mentioned a few times, so when I saw a poster advertising Butoh lessons I went along to the class. The teacher, Yuri Dini, was living in Glasgow for a short while only, so I was lucky, or there was a synchronicity to it! The class was in a small room and we were instructed to take 15 minutes to cross the space, and to carry with us our entire history and that of our ancestors, and the whole evolution of humanity. It sounded ridiculous. But it introduced me to a different perspective: intuitive, non-scientific, non-object based. I was already influenced by the poetry of writers like  William Blake, where I had a sense of the meaning , but couldn’t fully comprehend. Butoh allowed me to experience it directly in my body. It was like an explosion in my life.

Dougie Strang:  Tell me a little bit more about Butoh.

PMH: Butoh is a politicised dance form, but it resists definition. Hijikata, the originator, rejected both Japanese and Western ideas of dance. He wanted to restore what he called ‘the body that hadn’t been robbed’, hadn’t been socialised, modernised, Westernised. It was an absolute rebellion and a redefining of what dance could mean. This was in Japan, post WWII, so it has a specific cultural context, but it really spoke to me.

DS: Kind of the punk of it’s time!

PMH: That was why I was so into it. I saw it and thought, that’s punk, right there: Kazuo Ohno, an 80 year old man in a ladies’ nightdress with flowers in his hair.

DS: Was part of the attraction the fact that it came from a culture with a very different perspective to that of the West?

PMH: Absolutely, and it was about not knowing where to look, here, and being burned by what I grew up with. I have subsequently discovered that depth of culture and perspective in Scotland, a culture of resistance and reclamation, but I didn’t know it existed at the time, and so had to travel to find it.

There’s a line through all that I’ve done, and it’s often been hopelessly naïve. I was arrested when I was 19 for vandalising the local McDonald’s, because I had a vague idea that what they were doing was wrong. I had no real experience, just good intentions, which has probably informed my artistic practice ever since! The punk songs I was writing in my 20s were politically radical, but what I hope I’ve added over time is some depth and nuance, and some different art forms and angles of attack; but they’re still continuing to question the values and structures of this society. In a way, climate change is a weird gift, like it’s a focal point, something you can hold up and say: ‘See, see, I knew this wasn’t right!’

DS: It’s certainly helped to tear the facade, and despite our best attempts at maintaining business as usual, the planet itself is intruding on our consciousness.

PMH: Yes, which makes even more ludicrous the idea of a dead, mechanistic universe in which consciousness is perceived as the ‘hard problem’. It’s so arse backwards! Consciousness is the water we swim in, everything is alive, and the idea of separateness has never run true in my body, and I’ve only grown more sure of that.

DS: You propose, in your work, that ‘the Anthropocene is happening inside our bodies, right now.’ What do you mean by that?

Paul Micheal Henry Photo: Jamie Wardrop

PMH: I became a dancer because my intellect turned to my body for answers. I’m not anti-intellectual, I hope for an ongoing dialogue, but I reject the idea that the rational mind sits separate and superior, rather than something that is interwoven with emotion, physicality, etc. So climate change is happening in my body. This is not a dogmatic stance, it’s just a fact, How can it not be? Things permeate. As an example, studies show that anti-depressants taken by humans, passed out of the body and into sewage and then into the sea, are having an effect on marine life. We are interacting with everything: the air we breathe, the trees around us. To separate myself from that seems ludicrous, as though I could exist in a void. As Alan Watts says, ‘We don’t come into the world, we come out of it.’

DS: And yet we’ve convinced ourselves that we are somehow separate.

PMH: Yes, we’re outside looking in, or inside looking out, whatever the fiction is supposed to be; Descartes and his mind-body dualism.

DS: It does feel as though in that period, the mid-17th century, something darkly profound happened, some severance, though we can’t just pin it all down to one man – there was the whole scientific revolution going on, the ramping up of colonialism, the beginnings of industrialism and the march to where we are now.

PMH: Absolutely, and it poses the big question: why? What for? You can do away with religion and self-inquiry and immanence, but ‘shopping’ is simply not an adequate replacement! As conscious human beings, death has always been part of the deal, but consumerism tries to distract us from contemplating it. I’m far more interested in orienting myself to a meaningful life, one day lived well, rather than fifty years with a hole inside me.

DS: One of the things that strikes me about Butoh – my limited experience of it – is that the dancers are often ghoul-like, terrifying, a conjuring of the dead.

PMH: It’s certainly a radical expansion of what can be considered beautiful! Hijikata was very explicit, he talked about dancing for the dead, and Ohno about those who died in the war, and dancing for all the other sperm that didn’t make it – he was the lucky one. How’s that for a cosmic scope!

The danger is that these ideas can lead to a sort of flabby flailing around, just being at one with the universe without any real technique – what you might call the bad Butoh. But it’s endlessly contradictory: on the one hand, smash all preconceptions about dance and form; on the other, Hijikata ended up having students who followed his ‘method’. Sometimes when I get too caught up in questions of technique and form, I think of how he effectively gave a middle finger to everything that came before him. So if you’re going to be true to that, you should give the middle finger to the ‘Hijikata method’, or anyone else’s notion of what Butoh should be. He was a contradictory figure, urging rebellion but cultivating a guru status. It’s like that saying: ‘If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.’

The flipside is that I also know people at the Hijikata archive, who are lineage holders, who want to preserve his method before it gets lost, for the benefit of those who come after, so that they can understand the work. And I respect that. I find myself ricocheting between positions. It’s a paradox I’m not going to resolve, and I think that’ll keep me interested!

Consciousness is the water we swim in, everything is alive, and the idea of separateness has never run true in my body

DS: So tell me about UNFIX.

PMH: The genesis was trying to find a platform for the dance work I was doing. I’d performed at a Dublin Butoh festival, and collaborated with other performers there to create a touring festival. So I wandered into the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, with a poster and some bravado and said, ‘Do you want this festival? I could just bring it.’ And to my delight, they said yes. The tickets sold out for both evenings, so they offered to host an expanded festival the following year, which freaked me out, because I knew there was only limited interest in Glasgow for this obscure dance form. It forced me to articulate what I felt wasn’t being attended to in existing contemporary performance events; which led me to properly considering ‘the situation’ – climate change, ecocide, all of that – and the idea of the body as a microcosm of the bigger picture that’s unfolding.

So rather than focusing on Butoh, I put out a call to artists and performers on those terms, and literally hundreds of people responded. It took me by surprise. Most of my life I’ve felt like I was shouting in the dark, but by saying things in a slightly different way, almost just by changing the order of the words, suddenly everyone seemed to know what I was talking about; and there was a real delight in receiving so many genuine proposals from contemporary performers, as well as established Butoh dancers like Ken Mai, all of whom were trying to articulate an embodied response to ‘the situation’.

I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t invite certain types of activism: I didn’t want to join the chorus of ranting protest, but to have a broader and deeper view.

On the trail of putting on the first UNFIX, I happened to attend a talk by Alastair McIntosh,  ‘Towards an Ecology of the Imagination’, which was a revelation to me. Not just the talk but also his attitude, and then I read his books, and then asked him to collaborate on a piece for UNFIX. It was as if I had to go off to Japan to find what I was looking for, yet here was this guy, just up the road, who was articulating, through his work, a lot of what I was feeling. I don’t regret the trajectory I took, but it was also amazing to know there were people here in Scotland doing that depth work. It made me realise that maybe I live somewhere quite exciting, that UNFIX didn’t arrive in a vacuum.

DS: What’s next, after this year’s UNFIX?

PMH: No idea, I need to pay the rent for a bit. Like all the best folk I know, I’ve yet to find a way of doing the work I really value and making any kind of living from doing it. Punk rock was a stance against so many things, so the capitalists took it over and sold it back to us. One thing about UNFIX, the nature of it, it won’t ever be shiny and sponsored, it won’t ever be sold back – that’s for sure!

 

Paul Michael Henry is a dancer, performer, and director of UNFIX.  He teaches dance workshops called ‘The Dreaming Body’.  paulmichaelhenry.com

The 2019 UNFIX Festival will be held  29th-31st March at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. The Dark Mountain Project will  host a ‘conversation in the dark’ at the Festival on 29th and present a double bill. ‘A Dance Down the Dark Mountain’ on 31st. Paul’s performance, ‘Shrimp Dance’ will happen on the evening of 31st. For the full programme go here: unfixfestival.com

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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Comments
  1. This is really interesting; thank you for introducing me to Butoh and for talking about your genesis as an artist, including disfiguring a McDonald’s. This statement resonated with me: “Initially I was drawn to traditional left politics, but I was also – fruitlessly – looking for a spiritual dimension. ” That has been my experience as well. Having a sense of reverence for a living universe seems to bump one off the well-trodden paths into a sort of social wilderness — not a bad thing.

  2. What a wonderful article. I love “shopping is not an adequate substitute!” You cannot strip spirit and soul from existence and not be left with an aching hole in your heart. Art provides a connection to the body, and certainly dance is a prime example of this. It helps us to orient ourselves and remember we are part of the earth and not separate and above it. Butoh seems to flow out of this naturally. Art may yet save the world.

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