In Memory of Kazuo Ohno8 min read

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By Jay Hirabayashi

Jay Hirabayashi recalls fond memories of butoh founder, Kazuo Ohno, who embraced and celebrated the art of dance both on and off the stage.

Kazuo Ohno in Rome / Image by Marco Tambara via Wikimedia Commons

My wife, Barbara Bourget, and I had seen Kazuo Ohno and his son Yoshito Ohno perform Water Lilies at the Moore Theatre in Seattle in 1993 when he was only eighty-six. When we entered the theatre to take our seats, we saw Yoshito standing dead centre upstage with his back to the audience. For the next twenty minutes, and before the doors closed, he stood there like a stone statue. Even after the lights dimmed, and the music—ranging from Maria Callas to Pink Floyd—began playing, he still stood there. I was so transfixed by him that I didn’t even see Kazuo Ohno enter the stage dressed as a woman with garish makeup. Barbara was so transfixed by Kazuo Ohno that she did not even notice when Yoshito Ohno left his position and exited perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later.

It is hard to describe how Kazuo Ohno danced. The movement does not seem technically complex although nobody else could repeat it. I noticed immediately how large his hands seemed, with every movement of his fingers and palms signalling something profound and significant. His whole body was an instrument of intense emotion, as if he were bursting with the desire to share the essence of joy and grief with his audience. In his old frame, he embodied a young woman. The paradox of existence resonated with every movement. I feared when he went to the floor that he would not be able to get up, but he did and he danced continuously for over an hour. Yoshito Ohno was his perfect alter ego. His entrances were minimalist movement in the extreme sense—long slow walks with the power and hot intensity of molten lava. The hardest thing to describe is how the focus and concentration of good butoh artists can convey so much while doing so little.

In September of 1995, Natsu Nakajima took me to Yokohama to take class with Kazuo Ohno, who was almost 89 years old at the time. To get to the Ohno Dance Studio where Kazuo Ohno had taught since 1961, you have to climb up a long series of steps. As Natsu and I were approaching the studio, we ran into Kazuo Ohno who happened to be descending from the top of the hill. Natsu and Kazuo talked for a few minutes after greeting each other warmly. She had been among his first students also studying with Tatsumi Hijikata, who with Kazuo, is credited with originating butoh. I noticed that Kazuo was hiding something behind his back, and when he left us to go into his house that was adjacent to the studio, Natsu started to laugh. When I asked her what was so amusing, she said that he had a bag of candy that he was probably not supposed to be eating and he had tried to hide it behind his back. I realized how much this old man was as fresh as a young child. Later, I would learn how he seemed not to distinguish between being on or off the stage. He danced all of the time. His life was dance and he was happiest when he could express himself in movement.

There was only this poetic description of the source of love that he wanted to see us express by moving in a way that we had never moved before. This, I realized, was the essence of butoh—to find one’s own way of moving.

Class with Kazuo Ohno was the most difficult challenge I had ever experienced with a dance teacher. There were about 20 students; half were Japanese and the others were from Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France, the United States, and Canada. For an hour, we sat around Kazuo while he read a poem and talked about its meaning. The poem was something about the devil manifesting in the menstruation flow of a woman. The evil blood leaves the woman in search of beauty in the form of a white flower. Good and evil find themselves back-to-back and neither can see the other. In the space between good and evil, Kazuo said, is the source of love. Then he asked us to get up and dance the source of love.

The only instructions he gave were to not use any technique in our dancing and to not try to dance the way he did. I was dumbfounded. How could I move without using all of my training? How could I not try to express myself the way I imagined a butoh dancer should move? Yoshito Ohno put on some shamisen music that was followed by opera, and then rock and roll. Kazuo Ohno sat and watched us. Some of the students adopted a butoh-like posture, knees bent, eyes fixed, and moved slowly. Others moved erratically and haphazardly. Some seemed to me to be using modern dance technique. I did not know what to do. After a few songs, Kazuo stopped the music and said that we did not seem to understand what he had been saying. He talked for ten more minutes about good and evil and the source of love and then asked us to try again. He made no suggestions about who was close to conveying what he was talking about. He did not correct us physically. There were no exercises to try. There was only this poetic description of the source of love that he wanted to see us express by moving in a way that we had never moved before. This, I realized, was the essence of butoh—to find one’s own way of moving.

I remembered feeling the same sense of utter bewilderment and failure when I had taken my first butoh workshop with Goro Namerikawa, who was one of the original Sankai Juku dancers. He had asked us to lie on floor and then instructed us to get up without using any muscles. This is impossible, I thought. Butoh is dancing the impossible. Kazuo’s classes were always like this one. There was never any warm-up of the body. There was the initial hour of listening to him talk about what was inspiring him at that moment and then he would ask us to dance that inspiration. There was never any instruction, and never any correction. If he thought we were not dancing well, he would stop us and assume that we just did not understand what he was talking about; so he would talk some more, and then make us dance some more.

He had asked us to lie on floor and then instructed us to get up without using any muscles. This is impossible, I thought. Butoh is dancing the impossible.

Yoshito Ohno, ironically, was initially trained primarily by Tatsumi Hijikata and not by his father. He appeared in the very first butoh performance choreographed by Hijikata in 1959 and did not perform with his father until 26 more years had elapsed. Yoshito’s classes were more formal. He used exercises while trying to explain to us Westerners that we would probably never understand butoh because our preconceptions clouded our minds. He took a long piece of rope and wrapped my body like a mummy and then told me to walk, which seemed impossible. How could I walk? I was in danger of falling on my face and breaking my nose. Yoshito noted the muscles on my arms that I proudly displayed with a tank top shirt. Japanese people, he said, appreciate weakness as much as strength. “Walk,” he demanded. He was really pushing my buttons. Butoh is impossible, I thought.

After either Kazuo or Yoshito’s classes, they would serve tea and cookies and make everybody feel honoured. As I watched Kazuo laughing with his students, I noticed that he talked all the time with his body. On stage, at the end of his performances, the bows sometimes went on for 20 or 30 minutes. Someone would give him a bouquet of flowers and he would be so delighted that he would have to dance again to express his appreciation.

Kazuo Ohno passed away on June 1, 2010 at the age of 103. When his legs were no longer strong enough to carry his body, he would still ask to be carried into the studio to be with the students and he would dance with his arms and his hands. I have a DVD of him at one of his last performances, where he sits on a hillside and stares at the sky. Nothing happens, but suddenly, his magnificent hand stretches out to grab a fleeting moment of ecstasy.

I will miss this man. He is the dancer that I aspire to be.

Click here to visit the website of Kazuo Ohno’s Dance Studio.

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