The Japanese avant-garde dance of butoh (the dance of darkness) is often misunderstood. Labeled as abstruse and indefinable by critics, it could be considered an acquired taste. Created in post-World War II Japan by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, the art form is for some, though, a mesmerizing experience. Through rigorous preparation and meditation, many dancers even say they experience a kind of artistic trance.
Butoh reached its peak of popularity in the 1980s when various international dance companies took inspiration from its free association and unorthodox appeal. Its influence can be seen today in contemporary European performance groups such as the acclaimed Catalan mavericks La Fura Dels Baus and Russian experimentalists Derevo.
This month sees the 101st birthday of butoh cofounder Kazuo Ohno and the 30th anniversary of his signature production “Admiring La Argentina.” Although currently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Ohno continued to dance into his 90s. Having seen the legendary South American dancer Antonia Merce y Luque, known as La Argentina,in a 1922 performance at Tokyo’s Imperial Theater, he treasured this experience for more than 50 years before finally paying tribute to her. His celebrated show, in turn, inspired a new generation of dancers and propelled the art form into theatrical consciousness.
In his honor, Kanagawa-based cultural organization BankART and the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio have put together a formidable program of performances, exhibitions, workshops and a symposium. The eclectic list takes in performers from Indonesia, South Korea, the United States and Japan.
One of the highlights of the festival is “Asia Tri: BankART Turns Into a Corner of Asia,” a performance featuring Indonesian group Bimo Dance Theater together with the Chumsori Dance Company from South Korea. Both groups, although deeply grounded in their native art forms and traditions, have also been influenced by butoh and the performance will include Japanese dancers. Taking into consideration Bimo’s Javanese dance background and Chumsori founder Yan Hejin’s training in both mathematics and shamanism, this event promises to be a cerebral, visual and theatrical feast.
Another treat is “Spring Flowers, Autumn Moon,” the second collaboration between Ohno’s son, the performer Yoshito Ohno, and South Korean innovator Kim Maeja. Ohno, himself nearly 70, has championed the esoteric Japanese dance over a prodigious career in which he has performed solo and also with butoh founder Hijikata. Maeja, who takes inspiration from Buddhism, Korean folk dance and shamanism, is an internationally revered dancer who choreographed the opening ceremony for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
If the tradition and aesthetics of opera and ballet and the visual brilliance of theatrical directors such as Robert Lepage tickle your fancy, then the collaboration between leading contemporary dancer Carolyn Carlson and multimedia wunderkinder Electronic Shadow — Belgium’s Naziha and France’s Yacine Ait Kaeci — might be your thing. “Double Vision” sees Carlson, the current artistic director of the Centre Choreographique National at Roubaix in France, use her considerable experience to enhance the visual magic of the dynamic duo from Europe. Using cutting-edge new media technology, Mestaoui and Kaeci play with audiences’ perception of reality and experience through projections of shadows and images, and dimensional trickery.
In a creative dialogue between organizers and the public, the BankART studio space plays host to “Works Inspired by Admiring La Argentina.” The exhibition has accepted contributions from the public, in conjunction with a list of curators, including Tokyo media favorites Off Nibroll and respected names from other disciplines such as poetry and music. It is the kind of offbeat event that the Elvis-loving Ohno loves, a real artistic happening with the potential to be a truly creative and spontaneous occasion.
The festival looks like an excellent opportunity to experience the legacy of butoh and its influence on the Asian — and international — artistic landscape. It also honors, in Ohno, a dancer who rates alongside Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham as one of the most original, significant and inspirational dancers of the 20th century.