DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt

2010/06/06

Ohno: Oh Yes

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Guido Harari, date unknown

Kazuo Ohno, a seminal figure in the butoh dance movement and one of the great creative spirits of our time, passed away June 1, 2010, at the age of 103.

I saw Ohno perform in 1996 at the Japan Society in New York.  In an essay posted on my first website, I wrote, ” I will never forget seeing Kazuo Ohno dance at the age of 90, light as a feather, radiating love, a whole audience embraced in his heart.  Love was a palpable force in his performance.”  I have never seen another live artist who created such an aura.  I felt that the hearts of those sitting around me in the auditorium were opening up, and that a kind of love filled with both sadness and joy was circulating through the theater.

The soulful singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, whose album The Crying Light is dedicated to Ohno, said, “In performance I watched him cast a circle of light upon the stage, and step into that circle, and reveal the dreams and reveries of his heart. He seemed to dance in the eye of something mysterious and creative; with every gesture he embodied the child and the feminine divine.”

The arc of Ohno’s career was far from the norm.  Coming from a fisherman’s family in Japan’s far north, he attended an athletic college.  As a student he saw an electrifying performance by the dancer Antonia Mercé, known as “La Argentina“.  Deeply moved, Ohno knew he had found his muse, but he had at the time no dance training, and it would take him many years to be able to pay tribute to her with his own performance.  He was drafted into the army and spent nine years at the front.  He presented his first public dance performance at the age of 43.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ohno was a major collaborator of avant-garde performance artist and choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata.  Hijikata’s work evolved from raw, radical provocation to a sophisticated choreographic vocabulary based not on external forms but on internal images and sensations.

In 1977, fifty years after the encounter with his muse, Ohno created the solo performance “Admiring La Argentina“, directed by Hijikata.  This dance moved audiences around the world, and suddenly in his seventies Ohno had a new career as a solo performer and a new status as a master of soul expression.

Japanese Poster for "Admiring La Argentina", 1977, photographer unknown

As a dancer, Ohno’s approach was to embody the essence of human feelings, not to act out a story or explore a concept.  When he was interviewed at the Japan Society in 1996, in connection with the performance I saw, he was asked what kind of response he hopes to get from the audience.  He said the thing he doesn’t like to hear from an audience member is that they “got it”.  “How could they ‘get it’?” he asked, “I don’t get it.”

There’s a description of a class taught by Ohno at his studio in the 1988 book Butoh:  Shades of Darkness, by Jean Viala and Nourit Masson-Sekine:  “[Ohno] doesn’t ‘teach’.  He nourishes; he guides; he provokes; he inspires. . . He assigns a subject for improvisation.  The ‘dead body’ is a theme he often suggests.  ‘What could be the life of that which is dead?  It is this impossibility which we must create.’  He explains that for his dance, we must not try to control the body, but to let the soul breathe life into the flesh.  He adds:  ‘Be free!  Let go!’  Being free is not doing what we want or what we think.  On the contrary, it means being liberated from thought and will.  It means allowing life to blossom within.” (p. 55)

Kazuo Ohno, photo by Ethan Hoffman, p. 46 from "Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul"

The 1987 photography book (in which the image above appears) Butoh: Dance of the Dark Soul includes these extracts from Ohno’s writing, “The Dead Begin to Run”:  “Superimposed on the story of the cosmos, man’s story unfolds.  Within this cosmological superimposition emerges the path that leads from birth through maturity to death.  The Butoh costume is like throwing the cosmos onto one’s shoulders.  And for Butoh, while the costume covers the body, it is the body that is the costume of the soul.

“A fetus walked along a snow-covered path.  It cleared a path by spreading its clothes upon the snow after removing them one by one as in a secret cosmic ceremony.  Then it peeled off its skin and laid that upon the path.  A whirlwind of snow surrounded it, but the fetus continued, wrapped in this whirlwind.  The white bones danced, enveloped by an immaculate cloak.  This dance of the fetus, which moved along as if carried by the whirlwind of snow, seemed to be transparent.

“In life there is, without a doubt, something beyond the brashness of youth which bursts like summer light.  There is something between life and death.  This part of ourselves is like the wreck of an abandoned car; if we fix it, it could start up again.” (p. 36)

Kazuo Ohno in "The Dead Sea", photo by Nourit Masson-Sekine, 1985. “The dead start running…” p. 51 from "Butoh: Shades of Darkness"

Perhaps Ohno had to wait for the ravages of age before his body could express this transcendence.  I see many performances by young dancers with powerful, trained bodies.  But to see Ohno’s small, frail and aged body move was to see divine grace manifesting in the only way it can, through mortal, vulnerable, transient living matter.

From a young age, Ohno had been devoted to the Christian faith.  While his beliefs and their part in his art are barely discussed in any writing I have read by or about Ohno, I see in his work an expression of the Christian theme of divine cosmic spirit entering into bodily form to experience passion, love, sacrifice, suffering and death.  This is not just the story of Jesus, as Ohno shows us, but the story of all embodied creatures.  And this embodiment is not, as some would have it, the debasement of the spirit, but its exaltation.

 

The video above, showing Ohno improvising in his studio, is dated 2000, but I don’t know the source.  If anyone can identify what this is from, please let me know so I can credit it properly.  The images used in this post were all found on the web, and clicking on the pictures links back to their sources.  Where the scans I found on the web match illustrations in books I own, I have also noted where they appear in those printed sources in the captions.

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