Place: New York

Dance of the Soul’s Subversions

Art Categories:  Dance, Film, Multi Media, Performance

Takao Kawaguchi © Ayumi Sakamoto

Those unforgettable clouds mushrooming into the skies over Japan in August of 1945 did much more than just release the devastating power of the sun. Their mere existence somehow blurred the border between reality and the unimaginable, and ejected countless spores that have radiated out through both time and space, affecting all life physically, emotionally and spiritually even unto today. Of the many bizarre fruits that were born of that blossom of destruction, perhaps it is butoh that is most peculiar.


Like nuclear fusion, the meeting of its two fathers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno released butoh—“the dance of utter darkness”—into the world. Directly assaulting the audience with taboo themes of homosexuality in their 1959 collaboration based on Yukio Mishima’s “Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors)”, butoh was both a primal response to the atomic horrors and an opportunity to change the rigid structures of traditional dance through subversion, by exposing the underbelly of society and the beauty in the grotesque. The two men went on to develop their own unique styles, with Hijikata seen as the “architect of butoh,” and Ohno its undeniable soul.


And through the effort and spirit of one of Japan’s most sought-after contemporary dancers Takao Kawaguchi, we are revisited by the legendary soul of Mr. Ohno in “About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces.” Presented as part of an immersive weekend at Japan Society, which included an exhibition of artifacts from the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio in Yokohama, a screening of Chiaki Nagano’s 1970 film “Portrait of Mr. O”, and a body sculpting workshop taught by Mr. Kawaguchi exploring Ohno’s unrivaled movements, the North American premiere of this work conceived, created and performed by Mr. Kawaguchi recreates excerpts from Kazuo Ohno’s masterpieces Admiring La Argentina (1977), My Mother (1981), and Dead Sea, Ghost, Wienerwaltz (1985).


Takao Kawaguchi, Photo © bozzo

Takao Kawaguchi © bozzo

Meticulously reconstructed by analyzing and sketching hours of video of Mr. Ohno’s performances, Mr. Kawaguchi has crafted a triptych of delirium. “I made a lot of drawings, so I could assimilate better,” Mr. Kawaguchi says, speaking at a Q&A after the performance. “When I watch his videos, I go with his hands. This hand movement becomes a wave and goes through your body. That was the entrance for me to go into his dance. This hand movement lifted me up, so I was a little bit levitated by his hand movements.”


In the mesmerizing “The Embryo’s Dream” from My Mother, Mr. Kawaguchi moves at times almost imperceptibly across the stage in a manner both hallucinatory and temporally disrupting. Drawing the watcher inexorably toward the border between the waking and the dream states and then proceeding to smudge and blur that border like a child with colored sidewalk chalk. “He had very sensual movements and gestures and spaces around his body which affected me,” says Mr. Kawaguchi. “This was his magic that I wanted to take in.”


Left: Takao Kawaguchi, Right: Kazuo Ohno

With each dance Mr. Kawaguchi is, as it were, holding up a lantern to sections of an enormous bas-relief spanning the shadow-dark halls of Ohno’s imagination. And performed to audio recordings of Ohno’s original performances, the evening becomes an almost eerie duet, with the ghost of Mr. Ohno haunting the stage for brief moments before melting away again into the ether. “I was haunted,” says Mr. Kawaguchi, “possessed. I wish he would possess me, but actually this is copying, so I’m really trying to remember what I have watched in the video.”


Author's sketch of "Dead Angel"

For Kazuo Ohno, butoh was undeniably about the soul. In the documentary film “Butoh – Piercing the Mask” he says, “Before applying techniques, the question of the mind, spirit or life must be considered…I don’t need techniques to lead my life after death. I try to ignore techniques and structures and focus on the spiritual.” However, as Mr. Kawaguchi related in the workshop, Ohno would spend hours in front of the mirror perfecting the form of each gesture. And though singular in his style, Ohno still had Hijikata direct his works, whereas Mr. Kawaguchi’s project is a solo endeavor. “An attempt to copy his dance as it is, no more no less, means nothing but to suspend whatever interpretation the copier may have as well as his own beliefs, and to project himself onto the forms and shapes of the old dancer as exactly as possible.” Since it is impossible to know what was going on in Mr. Ohno’s mind, Mr. Kawaguchi trusts by going through the body.


Kazuo Ohno in "Portrait of Mr. O"

That magnetic event still has us in its grasp. Ohno, who spent nine years of his life at war, was in a prolonged cocoon period when he filmed “Portrait of Mr. O”, where he’s seen often burdened down and dragging many things—an echo of having to lug and bury the dead bodies of his fellow soldiers? Who can say. Incubating and growing in the ruins of WWII, just as order emerges from chaos and new growth from rot, butoh indelibly connects the Japanese body to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the utter destruction of Japan, however it is also the birth of a new spirit and a healing. In Kazuo Ohno’s butoh creations and in Takao Kawaguchi’s dedication to reviving their forms, we find catharsis for both body and soul.


Text & Sketch by Joseph Reid

Photos by Ayumi Sakamoto, bozzo, Maria Baoli, Naoya Ikegami, Bob Fujisaki



About Kazuo Ohno launches a Japan Society-produced seven-city tour, which includes performances at Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (VT; September 27-28), University of Iowa Department of Dance (IA; September 30 – October 1), UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center Bowker Auditorium (MA; October 5), REDCAT – Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (CA; October 7-9) and The Andy Warhol Museum (PA; October 13).


Japan Society Performing Arts

Takao Kawaguchi Official Website

Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio