featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Dispatch, 10-28: Birthday Butoh
Still Dancing the Dance of Wild Grass, Ohno Turns 96

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2002 Maura Nguyen Donohue

TOKYO -- Yesterday I went from the truly silly to my most sincere dance experience to date when I attended the 96th birthday party for Butoh pioneer and legend, Kazuo Ohno. The lengthy train ride out from Tokyo's Shibuya Station, the adolescent heartland for consumer crazy Japanese teens, was a minor physical preparation for the transcendental encounter waiting for me in Ohno-san's studio in Kamihoshikawa, Yokohama. The studio, built in 1961, has been the center where Kazuo and his vibrant and virile 64-year-old son, Yoshito Ohno, have been holding regular workshops for students three times a week for more than four decades.

I first saw Kazuo and Yoshito in Seattle in 1993 during their tour of eight U.S. cities. After Sankai Juku had thoroughly rocked my world on a college 'fieldtrip' with my lighting design professor two years before, I was curious to see what another Butoh artist would offer (plus Brian Nishii, my soon-to-be long-term collaborator was translating for Kazuo's workshops, so we got free tickets to the sold-out event). Nothing like the high-tech spectacle of the visually stunning Sankai Juku, Kazuo and Yoshito Ohnos' performances were highly personal and deeply captivating on a profound, visceral level. When I saw Kazuo again at the more intimate Japan Society in New York in 1996, I was able to see the grace and mastery of an artist who hadn't even begun performing until he was almost twice my age at the time. Yesterday, I was honored to see a man who, though nearly incapable of standing or speaking, refuses to stop dancing.

Kazuo Ohno was born in Hakodate City, Hokkaido, in 1906. In 1929, after seeing a performance by the Spanish dancer Antonia Merce, known as "La Argentina," he was so impressed that he decided to dedicate his life to dance. He began training with two of Japan's modern dance pioneers, Baku Ishii and Takaya Eguchi, the latter a choreographer who had studied Neue Tanz with Mary Wigman in Germany. In the 1950s, he met Tatsumi Hijikata, considered the 'creator' of Butoh (originally called Ankoku Butoh, the "Dance of Utter Darkness") and in 1959, Kazuo and Yoshito both performed in Hijikata's "Kinjiki" (Forbidden Colors), based on the novel by Yukio Mishima. In its inception Butoh was defiantly avant-garde; inspired by the work of Fluxus artists, Surrealists, and Dadaists, it was a rejection of traditional dance forms.

In 1977, Ohno premiered his solo Butoh work directed by Hijikata, "La Argentina Sho" (Admiring La Argentina), which was awarded the Dance Critic's Circle Award. He has toured throughout Europe, North and South America, Australia and Asia and starred in the films, "The Portrait of Mr.O" (1969), "Mandala of Mr.O" (1971) and "Mr.0's Book of the Dead" (1973), directed by Chiaki Nagano; in "The Scene of the Soul" (1991) by Katsumi Hirano; and "Kazuo Ohno" (1995), directed by Daniel Schmid. He has written three books on Butoh: "The Palace Soars through the Sky", "Dessin" and "Words of Workshop."

Ellen Stewart, founder of La Mama, ETC, was the first to bring Kazuo Ohno to the U.S. back in 1981. I didn't know this until yesterday, when Perry Yung and I, both members of La Mama's Great Jones Repertory Company, arrived at the studio at the invitation of Tokyo dance critic Yukihiko Yoshida. Ellen had sent a t-shirt to Yoshito, who stopped the party to introduce the honored guests from New York. As has happened everywhere we've been with Ellen, be it Europe, Africa or Asia, we discovered yet another performing arts legend who calls her "Mama."

We quickly plopped down and proceeded to attempt to catch up with the 30-plus other rosy-faced guests, who already had a couple hours of sake drinking before us. The event was attended by regular Japanese students, a visiting student from Israel, a particularly helpful University of Hawaii PhD candidate, writers, presenters, professors and one very drunk senior dance critic who followed Yoshito's example by performing an impromptu dance performance and speech before landing a couple of solid, wet kisses on Kazuo's lips. An entirely proper Butoh birthday party by any standard. In addition to Yoshito's decisions to don a large, blue Styrofoam animal head and perform in the midst of eating partygoers, several students offered distinctive spontaneous dances. But the high point came when Kazuo was helped into the studio and his chair to receive wishes of "Tanjobi Omedeto Goziamasu!" A student put Elvis on the stereo and I found myself switching back to Kazuo's encore at the Japan Society, when he also performed to "How great thou art." Obviously, this is still a favorite for Kazuo, as he began to gesture, repeatedly clenching and unclenching his right fist, shaking his hands and shifting in his chair. In moments he would seem to fall back exhausted only to spring back into movement with renewed vigor. When we sat before him to wish him a happy birthday he began again and didn't stop for over half an hour. At one point, with Yoshito's help he stood and the passion and light radiating out of this simple corporal vessel was overwhelming. I sat humbled, silenced from regular complaints about my own bruised body and inspired to "dance the dance of wild grass to the utmost of my heart."

A Message from Kazuo Ohno on International Dance Day in 1998:

A Message to the Universe
On the verge of death one revisits the joyful moments of a lifetime.
One's eyes are opened wide-gazing into the palm, seeing death, life, joy and sorrow with a sense of tranquility.
This daily studying of the soul, is this the beginning of the journey?
I sit bewildered in the playground of the dead. Here I wish to dance and dance and dance and dance, the life of the wild grass.
I see the wild grass, I am the wild grass, I become one with the universe. That metamorphosis is the cosmology and studying of the soul.
In the abundance of nature I see the foundation of dance. Is this because my soul wants to physically touch the truth?
When my mother was dying I caressed her hair all night long without being able to speak one word of comfort. Afterwards, I realized that I was not taking care of her, but that she was taking care of me.
The palms of my mother's hands are precious wild grass to me.
I wish to dance the dance of wild grass to the utmost of my heart.

Maura Nguyen Donohue, the Dance Insider's Asia bureau chief, is a choreographer, dancer, and the artistic director of Maura Nguyen Donohue/ In Mixed Company.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home