InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Dec 2007

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

Yet More Towards a Theory of Martial Arts as Performing Art

Copyright © Deborah Klens-Bigman 2007. All rights reserved.

Kim Taylor, Editor of the EJMAS website, suggested that I respond to "A Critical Assessment of Deborah Klens-Bigman's Performance Theory of Martial Arts" (Harrison 2007) which discusses my article, "Towards a Theory of Martial Art as Performance Art" (1999, reprinted 2002). I have accepted the invitation as an opportunity to further explore some of the issues brought up in my original article.

The critique is based on the idea that I was introducing a comprehensive theory for examining all martial arts practice. However, I was simply setting out some ideas, based in performance studies theory, by which certain martial arts forms could be examined. The term "performance art" - which to me conjures up images of a naked Annie Sprinkle lecturing Lower East Side hipsters on their sexual hypocrisy - was a decision made by the editor at the time. My word choice was "performing art" (as in the current title) which better represents my original concept of framing certain martial arts practices in terms of performance. As flattered as I am by the assumption that I was reaching for an overarching theory, that is, to this day, well beyond me, as I shall explain later.

The second point of digression was confusion of performance studies theory with dramatic theory. While the two fields have themes in common, they are not the same thing. Dramatic theory, as the term implies, has to do with works created for the stage; an increasingly irrelevant art form (it's true, no matter how much some of us may regret that). Performance studies, on the other hand, though it may include theatrical works as part of its purview, is an interdisciplinary study that also includes, among other fields, anthropology, sociology, psychology, folk history, dance and religious studies. Performance studies scholars examine the performative elements in human (and sometimes even animal) activities. We may examine significant events from everyday life, such as religious services, weddings, graduations, or funerals. Popular entertainments, including carnivals, circuses, sideshows, television, video games, parades, mass protests and sports are also regularly dealt with by scholars in the field. More consciously performative venues such as dance, Western and Non-Western theatre and film have also been under the PS microscope. Some PS scholars argue, as I stated in the article, that people are conscious of an audience even in their most private activities. The spate of reality shows we have been enduring on television bear out that not only is the private performer capable of being watched, he can be well aware of, and even enjoy, being on exhibit. Performance studies scholars' interest in alternative theatrical forms led to a natural interest in investigating avant garde performances, including performance art - outre' presentations, usually by artists or others with little or no theatrical training - more likely to take place in galleries rather than a legitimate theatre space.

As an emerging field, there was a great deal of creative energy in my department that led to all kinds of theoretical experimentation, including ethnographic description, micro and macro movement analysis, facial expression, theories on structure, gender and sexual identity, as well as various history courses on popular entertainments and avant garde movements, and survey courses on various performance genres - trust me, it is a very long list. Here, I thought, was a wide-ranging discipline that could possibly provide an alternative way to examine non-Western performance forms apart from the necessarily categorical mindset of accepted Western methodology. It was as an extension of non-Western performance genres that brought me to an examination of martial arts as a form of performance, though I was not the first to do so (see, for example, Jackson (1993) which I cited in my article, and there are others). My interest in applying performance studies theory to martial arts fits in with other treatments by anthropologists in their attempts to discuss martial arts in the US and elsewhere (for an overview, see Jones (Ed.) (2002)).

The author questions the idea of taking an aesthetic look at martial arts. He quotes Bolelli (2003) as suggesting that only frankly "performative" martial arts forms, such as Chinese wushu and Brazilian capoeira, should be examined in an aesthetic sense, but apparently that other martial arts forms do not lend themselves to such analysis (Harrison 2007, 1-2). (As for not consulting Bolelli, I note his book was published in 2003, well after my article appeared - both times). While I would certainly agree that it is not useful to examine all martial arts forms in an aesthetic way (remember I was not mounting anything like a comprehensive theory) dividing martial arts forms into hardened categories, though useful at times, is a necessarily limited point of view.

The martial art forms I chose to examine were primarily traditional ones - iai and kenjutsu (forms of swordsmanship), kyudo (long-bow archery) and, to a lesser extent, empty-hand arts; however, all of my examples were devoid for the most part of sporting elements. Japanese koryu (lit. "old style") forms (iai and kenjutsu, kyudo, jo, naginata, and early empty-hand forms, among others), which is where my interest and experience lie, are steeped in Japanese aesthetics, while still keeping an element of potentially deadly practicality intact. One can certainly analyze these forms without considering their aesthetic elements, but such an analysis leaves out an aspect of practice that is often consciously taught. I cite below several examples of commonly accepted aesthetic elements in Japanese koryu practice:

Johakyu, is a structural element, sometimes inadequately translated as "slow - medium - fast," also suggests a rising level in intensity. As Peter Boylan (2007) points out, the earliest references to johakyu came from the writings of Zeami Motokyo (1363-1443). Zeami notes the rising level of intensity in both the structure and performance of noh, though it exists in other Japanese theatrical forms as well. The kata in many koryu art forms also include johakyu. Specifically, I have written elsewhere about how iai kata contain both an overall sense of johakyu, as well as individual portions of the kata showing the same rise in intensity (for example, the accelerating sword draw that ends in a cut). Johakyu is taught as part of the kata in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, among other styles (for a good comprehensive article on johakyu as it applies to iai, see Boylan (2007)).

Ma can best be described as being similar to the concept of the interval in music; i.e. the timing between notes. It is expressed in Japanese kanji as the sun glimpsed through a gate. In Japanese performance, ma can be a synonym for talent (sometimes it is also referred to with the English word "timing"). A dancer with poor ma has no talent, no matter what his technical ability. The same could be said of a martial arts student whose timing is off in a partner, or even solo, kata. Though ma can be improved upon, it cannot be taught; which is why high-level people can make partner kata look exciting, even when, as kata, the outcome and even the moves to get there, are pre-ordained. Poor ma in a partner kata is awkward at best; in solo kata the result may be simply boring to an observer.

InYo (or yin-yang) is the complementarity of opposites, and almost needs no introduction to any martial artist (note the name of this journal). In Muso Shinden Ryu iaido, for example, the drawing of the sword is facilitated by pulling the saya (sheath) back around the body as the sword comes out. In other words, push and pull work together to create an effective technique. InYo is so important that a kata from the shoden (beginner set) of Muso Shinden Ryu bears the name Inyoshintai. InYo is important to aesthetic movement and pictorial art as well.

It is difficult to determine when these aesthetic elements first appeared. By the Genroku period (1688-1704), they were so much in evidence in swordsmanship that some feared beauty was replacing efficacy, and such practices were decried as "flowery swordsmanship" (Hurst 1998, 66). The struggle between simple practicality and the aesthetics of swordsmanship can still be found today in the arguments between, for example, Toyama ryu* practitioners and virtually everyone else. However, the extant styles I am familiar with have retained their practical aspect as well as the aesthetic one.

Further evidence for aesthetic expression can be found in the venue for the exhibition of the koryu arts I mentioned above. The venue for an enbukai (which combines, "en" for performance, along with "bu" as in martial and "kai" meaning gathering) is as likely to be a public hall or theatre as it is a gymnasium. Practitioners wear formal clothes similar to what they might wear if they were members of a Japanese wedding party. The extreme formality of koryu practitioners in Japan (echoed to a certain extent by their counterparts in the US) reflects the seriousness with which they take their practice as an art form, rather than mere sport or physical exercise. As I stated in Klens-Bigman (2002), some enbukai include special lighting effects and performances of other traditional Japanese arts – further evidence of their performative nature.

Beauty may not be an overwhelming element of, say, a judo match, though I have met practitioners who get an aesthetic charge out of either performing or seeing a perfectly-executed technique in the course of one. For the forms I was considering, however, aesthetic considerations are part and parcel of the practice.

In my discussion of koryu arts, I was not addressing sports or martial art sport forms. That sports have no narrative drive and that it is incorrect to assign one to them is obvious, as anyone can tell who is not interested in a particular sport but sits through an endless, mind-numbing, "must see" game with an enthusiast. To the extent performance studies considers sports, they come under the rubric of public entertainments or spectacle, which was not appropriate for viewing the koryu martial arts used as examples in my article. Kata in many koryu arts (as opposed to more modern martial arts forms) are stories of attack and defense. Their narrative element is fairly evident to anyone who sees a high level practitioner perform.** Considering these forms in their aesthetic sense, therefore, was certainly one possible way in which to attempt an analysis.

My use of performance studies theorist Richard Schechner's analysis of workshop (1988) to describe a martial arts dojo is sound as it stands. However, the assigned roles participants might play in a dojo situation are not necessarily "fixed" (nor did I state that they were). I have been in many situations where a teacher in one class in one style might be a student - even a beginner - in another. My own dojo experience, in which a several koryu arts are practiced, puts a number of us on different sides of the room, depending on what is being taught. Though the model of dojo structure - the role of teachers and the hierarchy of students in traditional martial arts dojo - is well established, who occupies those roles can certainly change. As for the idea that dojo practice is separated from the outside world, in the world of koryu weapon arts, where practitioners often wield swords, knives, sticks, glaives, bows, arrows and spears, it had better be.

Stanislavsky's idea (1989) that a performer (i.e. martial artist) "lives" his role is an apt description of the performance of koryu kata. As I have noted above, koryu martial artists are often enacting a story of attack and defense; the extent to which they commit themselves in these actions can be very similar to a someone in a more performative venue. Lack of concentration on the techniques and story line being enacted can result in one or both parties suffering an injury. I frankly do not follow the argument that this analysis leaves nothing to strive for. Surely it is understood that one takes up a study of a martial art form of whatever kind seeking improvement in some way (though striving for rank, in my world, is secondary to improvement of skill). Unfortunately those who don't know much about theatrical training consider it a form of "playacting" rather than a serious art form. I cannot help that some people who think "acting" think of Paris Hilton rather than Meryl Streep. And, while Stanislavsky was European, I could just have easily used kabuki actors' commentary in The Actors Analects (Dunn and Bunzo (eds.) 1969) or even Zeami himself (Rimer and Yamazaki (tr.) 1984), as the discussions of the interior sensibilities of performers are surprisingly similar, even as the external results are vastly different.

I disagree that considering enbukai from the aspect of being a spectator is an example of "objectification" of the subject. Since I already considered the practitioner's point of view in the beginning of the article, why not consider the spectator's? There are many more spectators (i.e., people watching an enbu performance) than practitioners (the koryu martial artists), after all. Moreover, spectators are an integral part of performance - there can hardly be one without someone to watch. Considering a performance from multiple perspectives is messy, but not invalid. In fact the advanced martial arts student should be constantly monitoring her execution of the form, learning to make corrections on her own in the absence of a teacher.

My viewpoint was narrowly focused in that I was considering traditional and mostly koryu art forms in terms of performance theory. This set of principles may not necessarily be appropriately applied across the vast realm of martial arts practice. Let us consider the scope of "martial arts" for a moment; not simply as an activity with a geographic spread that includes Japan, China, Korea and "other martial traditions" (which actually is a modern way of looking at something that predates political boundaries of nations). Specifically the "others" include Africa, India, Indonesia and the rest of south and southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Native America (north and south) - in other words, the rest of the planet. Current martial arts practice also reflects various periods of historical development - hence we have Tendo Ryu naginata along with Atarashii Naginata, iai and kenjutsu alongside kendo, modern sport fencing along with the study of French small sword. Depending on the point of view, a survey of martial art forms could also include fight choreography and digitally-enhanced techniques and styles developed and perpetuated for virtual characters in cyberspace that mere humans are in no way capable of. That said, it is reasonable for me to limit the scope of my discussion, if for no other reason than that by doing so, the discussion can be had at all. I am by no means alone among scholars of martial arts who impose similar limits on their work.

As for different ways of looking at martial arts, of course there are more than even the three concepts the author outlines in his conclusion. While he did not posit any overarching theory for examining martial arts himself, any overarching theory will of necessity generalize or simplify. Any number of scholars will then gleefully point out exceptions, perhaps to the point of making any "general theory" all but useless.
Given the enormous scope of martial arts practice, both on the human scale and beyond, I am not surprised that we have not seen some general theory, and I am even skeptical that such a theory can be discerned. We are understandably "behind the curve" if for no other reason than the daunting prospect of trying to bring some sort of reasonable sense to the claims to the term "martial art" that swirl around us. If the proof of any theory (or proto-theory) is in its applicability, at least my small analysis showed some possible means of looking at a particular set of art forms, by taking into consideration their aesthetic aspects.


*Toyama ryu, in its various forms, was created in the early 20th century as part of Japan's rising militarism and corrupted sense of Bushido. It pared down sword techniques to their practical essence, and provided military officers, who still carried swords, with a crash course in how to use them. Though its current practitioners (and there are many in the US) have done quite a bit to establish Toyama ryu as a legitimate style of swordsmanship, the enduring historical image for me is that of a sword-wielding officer about to decapitate a hapless Chinese prisoner, bound, kneeling at his feet. Interestingly, for enbukai in Japan and demonstrations in the US, the Toyama Ryu practitioners are the most elegantly dressed of all. For more on the Imperialist corruption of Bushido, see Friday (2001). For more on Toyama Ryu, see Klens-Bigman (2007).

** The one exception here might be kyudo. Kata in Heki Ryu Bichu Chikuren ha, for example, do not at all seem to be narrative-driven, except in the sense that a moving target appears, and the archer shoots at it. However, kyudo does include as part of its practice the aesthetic elements that I noted and can therefore be considered in an aesthetic sense.


Boylan, Peter
2001 "JoHaKyu" The Iaido Journal (March)

Dunn, Charles J. and Bunzo Torigoe (Eds.)
1969 The Actors' Analects NY: Columbia Univ. Pr.

Friday, Karl
2001 "Bushido or Bull: Am medieval historian's perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition" InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (March)

Harrison, L.
2007 "A Critical Assessment of Deborah Klens-Bigman's Performance Theory of Martial Arts" InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (Nov.)

Hurst, Cameron G.
1998 Armed martial arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and archery, New Haven; Yale Univ. Pr.

Jackson, S.
1993 Representing rape: Model Mugging's discursive and embodied performances. The Drama Review 37(3): 100-141.

Jones, David E. (ed.)
2002 Combat, Theory and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts Westport: Praeger.

Klens-Bigman, Deborah
2002 "Towards a Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art" in Combat, Theory and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts (Jones, D. E., Ed.) Westport: Praeger.

2007 "Toyama Ryu: Swordsmanship of Imperial Japan" FightingArts

Rimer, J. Thomas and Yamazaki Masakazu (Trs.)
1984 On the Art of No Drama Princeton: Princeton Univ. Pr.

Schechner, R.
1988 Performance Theory New York: Routledge.

Stanislavsky K.
1989 An Actor Prepares NY: Routledge/Theatre Arts Books.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies
Jalt Dec 2007