Dancing with her heart and soul on the stage of a tiny "kura" earthenware storehouse, Tenko Ima presents a world of mesmerizing "Butoh," or Japanese avant-garde dance, on its native soil Kyoto. 

With a seating capacity for a mere nine people, the kura -- which survived the fierce battles during the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate -- allows the audience almost to feel the dancer's breathing given the intimacy of the small theater.

The dancer's pale costume and ghostly white face are enhanced in the darkness. Her body twists and twirls bewitchingly as she dances with such intensity that it seems as if she is going to trample the earth.

It is here on Sanjo-dori at the "KYOTO Butoh-kan," which opened in July 2016, that the dance style has found a permanent home for the first time in Japan in a theater dedicated exclusively to it.

The theater is so small that it could easily be missed even by local residents, but it has, for sure, grabbed attention from around the world.

About 80 percent of the audience are foreign visitors, from over 50 countries to date. Performances, which take place twice a week -- both on a weekday -- are almost always sold out, and have been featured in various international media.

Butoh is an avant-garde dance style born in Japan in the late 1950s. The Butoh-kan show's dancer, Tenko Ima, used to be a member of the acclaimed Butoh group Byakkosha, which set up base in Kyoto in the late 1980s. (The group disbanded in 1994.)

The rehearsal venue in Minami-ku currently used by Butoh Company Kiraza, which Ima founded, is exactly where Byakkosha used to be and where she lived together with some 20 other troupe members.

Not only did she want to keep alive the spirit of Butoh nurtured by her Byakkasha comrades, Ima also wanted to work in Kyoto -- which has a long history in Japan's entertainment world and is known as the birthplace of Kabuki.

According to Ima, the first supporters of Byakkosha were people in the "nishijin" woven kimono textile industry.

"In Kyoto, there are people who would cherish new forms of performing arts. Meanwhile, we as performers also get to build up our skills here," Ima said. "Kyoto is a city where the avant-garde and traditional cultures compete and thrive."

Keito Kohara, executive producer of Butoh-kan, envisions turning Sanjo-dori into a street like Broadway, with a cluster of theaters each staging their own productions and offering theatergoers a good selection of plays to choose from. At a separate theater in a traditional Japanese building on the same street, a play with no dialogue is in its sixth year.

Kohara, who hails from Hyogo Prefecture, recalled how he became involved with butoh.

"In Kyoto, nobody would stand in your way, but at the same time, no one would put out a hand either," Kohara said. "It was rather a 'Do as you like' kind of atmosphere."

Home to various universities, the city provided the opportunity for young artists to test out their productions thanks to the many small theaters available. In the 1980s, in particular, the ancient capital saw a boost in the popularity of student theatrical groups.

Although a number of famous mini-theaters have closed down in recent years, a new project to build facilities in the city's Minami district is currently under way.
Why has the culture of avant-garde theaters taken root in Kyoto despite the existence of large theaters such as the Minamiza and Rohm Theater Kyoto?

"Old traditional cultures that remain in Kyoto (such as Noh and Kabuki) bear in them both energy and intrinsic qualities," Kohara said. "That is why people gather here in Kyoto and once they grasp the intrinsic values, the momentum builds toward creating the next tradition."
"This is the city where one can take up new challenges," Kohara said.

Its streets lined with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is well known in Japan and worldwide as a city rich in both history and culture where one can experience firsthand all sorts of splendid festivals and traditional arts.

On the one hand, Kyoto is filled with high-class and refined culture; on the other, there is also a side that reflects the livelihoods of the ordinary people.

While the city’s glamour takes center stage, we found another side of the ancient capital by taking a more careful look at some of the things behind the scenes.

The Kyoto Shimbun official