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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.
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
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
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.
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