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In Memorium, 6-2: Kazuo Ohno
Last dance

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2010 Marisa C. Hayes

LE BREUIL (Saone et Loire), France -- This past year has seen the deaths of many great choreographers for whom the dance world is still grieving. Yesterday yet another giant in the field, Kazuo Ohno, passed away. Given he was 103 years old, no one can argue that Ohno's long rich life was cut short, but his creative achievements are more than worth recognizing. Having seen few articles or obituaries about Ohno in the major newspapers (aside from a generic obit in the New York Times that looks pre-prepared), my concern is that this great artist's death will go unnoticed. As he was the co-founder (alongside Tatsumi Hijikata, 1929 - 1986) of butoh, a post-war expressionist dance form that gradually influenced international dancers and choreographers across the globe, I'd just like to take a moment to share my experiences of Kazuo Ohno, with whom I studied sporadically from 1999 to 2003 at his home studio in Yokohama. His biographical information is easily accessible online, and for more details, as well as photos, I recommend his studio website (maintained by the Ohno family, particularly his son Yoshito, who assumed teaching responsibilities for his father when it became physically impossible for Kazuo to continue a few years ago). I'd prefer to share a few recollections that highlight the generosity, kindness and humor that embodied Ohno on a personal level.

The last time I danced with Ohno Sensei, as he was affectionately referred to, his son Yoshito-San (who danced as a young boy in the first butoh production "Kinjiki" in 1959) had already taken over the majority of the teaching at the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio. Ohno Sensei was well enough to continue attending class though, and he didn't hesitate to join in when the mood struck him. The night before I was scheduled to fly back to the US, I was crawling around on my belly at the Ohno Studio and smelled the strong odor of sake, Japanese rice wine. As my head turned, I realized the smell was coming from Ohno Sensei himself. Physically unable to walk without assistance, he had still managed to join the class and was clearly enjoying the pleasure of food, drink, and in that moment, the sensation of rolling on the floor. Our bodies were like newborn babies, exploring the territory with wide eyes. Ohno Sensei would know, he always said he'd danced in his mother's womb. Later, as the two-hour class was drawing to a close, Yoshito-San went to the stereo and played a CD. The track was Ohno-Sensei's favorite song, Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and the effect was immediate. Ohno, seated in his favorite white chair (the one you can see in photos as early as the 1960s) began an intricate dance with his hands. They looked like butterflies intertwined, with his powerful and articulate fingers creating dynamic forms. Clearly he still loved to and felt compelled to dance, and it was breathtaking. I will never forget those fingers. I don't think I've ever seen fingers dancing in such a powerful way, and doubt I ever will again. As I left that night, Ohno Sensei kissed my hand and winked with his flirtatious eyes. Those same expressive eyes that could project dozens of rows back in a sold-out auditorium.

Thinking back, what strikes me about Kazuo Ohno's legacy (that is wonderfully carried on today thanks to Yoshito Ohno) is the generosity with which the artist shared his resources. Today butoh has become fairly international, but even until recently, a few Japanese artists housed lingering prejudices about Western dancers who wished to study and even perform butoh. Arguments about different body types and life experience (namely the war) were used as excuses to bar foreign students from butoh workshops. Kazuo Ohno, by contrast, opened his studio to anyone, dancer or not, Japanese or not, to learn and move with him three times per week in his home studio. He taught that butoh themes were universal, concepts regarding life and death that all of us have experienced simply by our common link of being human. The classes have always been reasonably priced and a box on the wall is where students discreetly place their payment; no one collects the money or keeps any records. Once after I had missed a class, Yoshito-San asked if I was all right. I shyly admitted that my funds were tight and for that reason I had skipped the previous class. He quickly told me there was no problem and that I should "just come." Kazuo Ohno, it seems, had a history of allowing anyone to attend who was serious about butoh. A now well-known butoh dancer recounted that she was once so poor, Kazuo Ohno even offered to pay her subway fare to reach his studio in the suburbs.

Kazuo Ohno's generosity was found in his accessibility and the time he offered his students. Although each class lasted two hours, we typically remained at the studio for three to four hours due to a post-class discussion that Ohno Sensei encouraged by providing drinks and snacks. These elaborate offerings were French wine and pastries served alongside Japanese tea and traditional snacks. The Ohnos, students, and visitors (because there were always visitors: photographers, dance critics, international choreographers and even historic Japanese figures like the first Japanese dance writer) instilled a sense of equality by seating us all together around a large table, low to the floor (as is the tradition in Japan). Together, rosy-cheeked and enthused, we were able to discuss everything from the exercises we'd just performed to our diverse international backgrounds. Dancers from New Zealand, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US were common, as were Japanese students, many of whom had no dance background and no interest in a career in dance. As one local man told me, he attended each class faithfully to "make life better." There was always someone on hand to translate, and the Ohnos were always ready to provide explanations and anecdotes. They also showed a keen concern for the individual students and not a single newcomer left without having had a sense of connection with the Ohnos.

For his perseverance (Ohno wasn't even internationally recognized as a dancer until he was 70 years old), for his ability to transform the horrors of war and the atomic bomb into a powerful force of requiem and beauty, for his generous spirit, for his flirtatious humor, and for his amazing artistry, I remember Kazuo Ohno and thank him.

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