The Transformative Power of Butoh Reaches Correctional Facilities

The three young men were dressed in crisp, white T-shirts and sweatpants as they sat silently on the floor. Completely focused on their upcoming performance, they seemed unaware of the crowd filing in around them. The young men were mentally preparing themselves to display their skills in Butoh, the avant-garde performance art movement created in the late 1950s by Japanese dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

Yet these men weren’t professional entertainers, and they weren’t in a traditional setting. All three were serving jail time, and their stage was the gymnasium at the Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City.

During their incarceration, the men enrolled in the Modern Dance and Movement Class with Vangeline/Vangeline Theater, part of the Dream a Dream Project. The brainchild of Artistic Director Vangeline, the Dream a Dream Project has been reaching out to offenders in the New York area by teaching them creative movement through the principles of Butoh. The dance classes leading up to the performance were supported in part by funding granted by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs.

The men about to perform signed up for the class not knowing what Butoh was or what it entailed. On July 3, after only eight weeks of training and six two-hour rehearsals, the incarcerated men were about to perform for the first time in their lives – in front of 20 invited guests of Vangeline Theater as well as 120 of their fellow offenders.

The Queensboro Correctional Facility is a minimum-security institution for offenders who are approaching their release from prison. Part of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Queensboro Correctional Facility provides more than four hundred inmates intensive programs to prepare them for their reintegration into society. Vangeline Theater’s Dream a Dream Project is one of the rehabilitation opportunities available to them.

Tanya Mitchell-Voyd, Deputy Superintendent for Programs, addressed the audience before the performance, telling the offenders that what they were about to see was for them, that they can reach a level of personal growth through a program such as the Dream a Dream Project. She also thanked the guests of Vangeline Theater for “providing community support to those who have lost their way.”

Acting Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent for Administration Anthony Chu echoed Dep. Mitchell-Voyd’s sentiments, agreeing that Vangeline Theater’s work with the men was a special chance for healing.

The show was a triumph – aesthetically for the viewers, cathartically for the performers. The men owned each slow, deliberate step and opened up completely, bearing their emotions in front of their peers. They reached deep within themselves, confronting the choices they’ve made in their lives, and exorcising their demons.

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Vangeline Theater - Photo by Lori E Seid

At one point the men appeared to lift heavy objects, struggling to push the weight above their heads. Finally finding the strength to push the weight away from them, they collapsed to the floor in exhaustion, but with a sense of accomplishment. It was particularly moving, as it seemed to symbolize the men’s individual conflicts and their battles to overcome them.

In the Q&A session following the performance, the first question from the audience was why Vangeline’s guests cried. The guests were moved to tears by the courage it took those men to stand before residents of a correctional facility and act out in quiet stillness the discipline that was completely foreign to them two months prior.

Another offender asked if each man was telling his own story since they moved independently. One by one, the three men related what Butoh meant to them and how it helped them focus. They wanted to carry what they’ve learned into the world beyond Queensboro’s walls if not literally practicing the dance, then at least spiritually. (Each man was released from the facility just days after the performance.)

Dep. Mitchell-Voyd admitted afterward that she was initially skeptical of Vangeline’s Modern Dance and Movement Class, worried that it would be met with resistance by the men in the facility. “But after I saw this performance,” Dep. Mitchell-Voyd says, “I don’t need to be worried. I thank Ms. Vangeline for her hard work and dedication.”

Vangeline, too, was skeptical at first. She established the Dream a Dream Project in 2006, but this is the first time she’s worked with incarcerated men. She wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the men’s attitudes.

“They were very closed at first,” says Vangeline. “They just wanted to work out.”

So she approached the men differently than she did the incarcerated women or her longtime students. Session by session, she noticed changes in the men, and she felt they started to respect her more.

“I asked them to soften and open themselves,” she says. “Their ego was already broken (through troubled lives and years of shuttling in and out of correctional facilities), and they were able to find their spiritual side.”

The transformation of the men was clear on the gymnasium floor. Through Vangeline’s guidance, they made Butoh their own, and were able to tell their stories through this avant-garde Japanese performance art.

“There’s structure in Butoh,” says Vangeline. “I laid the foundation, but I gave them the freedom to explore their inner selves.”

The incarcerated members of the audience were supportive, which came as a surprise to the performers. One dancer told Vangeline they loved the piece “unanimously,” and “it earned him and the dancers a great deal of respect.”

Vangeline has new students at Queensboro Correctional Facility as a result.

“All the inmates I come across told me how much they loved the performance and how much it ‘moved’ them,” says Vangeline. “It is so touching to hear grown men in a correctional facility use this word ‘moved’ . . . You don’t expect inmates to use this word so freely, maybe that alone feels like such a victory.”

Vangeline had always believed in the transformative power of Butoh, which is why she began the Dream a Dream Project. Even when facing the challenges of convincing the New York Department of Corrections and Community Services to accept her or having grant proposals rejected, she never lost the will to develop her program. Through each class and each performance, that determination prevails.

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Vangeline performs "Spectral" in February of this year. Photo by Michael Blase

Vangeline is the driving force behind the Dream a Dream Project, but she’s received tremendous support not only from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, but also from several officials in the corrections system. In addition to Dep. Mitchell-Voyd and Dep. Chu, Hub Superintendent Dennis Breslin and Assistant Director of Public Information Linda Foglia were crucial in approving the program and facilitating the training and performance.

“It was risky for me to try an art form which is so avant-garde in a correctional setting,” Vangeline admits. Yet she describes Butoh as “a strong vehicle for deeper emotions.”

Those deeper emotions aren’t limited to her students in the facility. In eight short weeks Vangeline Theater’s Dream a Dream Project transformed those three men who performed. In thirty short minutes the fruits of her labor transformed an entire audience.

For Vangeline and the people she teaches at these correctional facilities, the transformation continues.

To make a contribution to Vangeline Theater in support of the Dream a Dream Project, please click here.