In celebration of the yin of butoh

Kazuo Ohno, prodded by fellow dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, helped establish a distinctly Japanese art form that's traveled the world

by Donald Eubank

“In 1949, Tatsumi Hijikata saw Kazuo Ohno perform for the first time. He was moved and described Ohno-sensei’s dance as geki yaku — like a powerful drug or deadly poison. Ohno-sensei was a dancer of powerful poison!” exclaims Takeshi Morishita of Keio University’s Tatsumi Hijikata Archive.

“Hijikata was very young and Ohno-sensei was a big modern dancer, so Hijikata was moved to see him dance.”

It turned out to be a fateful evening for dance, and soon the two men, despite their age difference, would in that most respectful of Japanese ways refer to one another as “sensei.” Together they are credited as the founders of butoh (or as Hijikata originally referred to it, ankoku buyo — the dance of darkness); Ohno the yin and Hijikata the yang of the avant-garde art form.

Ohno passed away in June at 103 years of age. According to those close to him, he was dancing right up until the very end, even when he was confined to a wheelchair. Such is befitting the man described as the “Soul of Butoh” in the 1988 book “Butoh: Shades of Darkness” by Jean Viala and Nourit Masson-Sekine, who contrast this with a description of Hijikata as the “architect” of the dance. As Morishita puts it: “For Ohno-sensei, the spirit came first, the form after. For Hijikata it was the opposite: form first, then spirit.”

“Ohno-sensei was very gentle; his dancing was wonderful. His dance was himself: His heart, his feeling, everything of himself appeared in his dance,” recalled the archivist in his offices last week as gentle jazz played in the background. “It is difficult to explain how fantastic his dance was because he could reveal himself, his feelings — any feeling, really — anytime. All he needed was music.

“Normally dancers try to look good, look beautiful, but he didn’t think about that, which means that he was very pure. He was the real definition of a dancer.”

Ohno was born in Hokkaido to an artistic family on his mother’s side and took up dance while teaching at Soshin Girls’ School in Kanagawa. He studied with Baku Ishii and Takaya Eguchi, teachers of modern dance, a form pioneered in Europe and the United States by the likes of Alvin Ailey, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham as a reaction against the limitations of ballet. His training was interrupted, though, by World War II, when he was sent in 1938 to China as an army information officer. After serving seven years, including a stint in New Guinea, Ohno returned to Japan and dance, with his first solo performance staged in 1949, the year that Hijikata saw him.

“Hijikata brought Ohno-sensei into the butoh world. If he hadn’t, Ohno would have remained a modern dancer. Butoh is an avant-garde form of dance, but modern dance comes from a tradition with a history,” says Morishita, explaining the background of the dance scene in Japan at the time of their meeting.

“Butoh doesn’t stop being avant-garde. Baku Ishii was avant-garde, too, but he only danced for a short time. Takaya Eguchi was a very big pioneer of modern dance in Japan. Hijikata, though, was not a very good dancer. He wanted to be a jazz dancer, a Spanish dancer, a classical dancer, but he just wasn’t good enough.”

Ohno, on the other hand, was all those things, when he wanted to be; and when he finally encountered Hijikata in the early 1950s, the younger man pushed him in all new directions. In 1959, Hijikata directed Ohno for the first time, making what seemed a shocking request of the older dancer, who was a convert to Baptist Christianity.

“Ohno-sensei was playing the role of the author Jen Genet, but Hijikata forced him to act as if he were a dansho (homosexual male prostitute) from one of Genet’s stories,” explains Morishita, referring to the character Divine from “Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs” by the French writer.

“Ohno-sensei was Christian, but Hijikata ordered him to be a prostitute and he just said, ‘OK’; that brought him into the butoh world.”

When asked by e-mail about Kazuo Ohno’s relationship with butoh, Akaji Maro of the Dairakudakan dance troupe also focused on the relationship between the Ohno and Hijikata: “The polar opposite orientations, conceptions, consciousness of Ohno and Hijikata are what, in coming together, created the whole that is butoh.”

After a series of successful collaborations with Hijikata through the ’60s, including “A Rose-colored Dance” and “Illustrated Textbook of the Rewards and Punishments of Sex Tomato,” Ohno suddenly stopped performing.

There was a falling out between Ohno and Hijikata, the nature of which — aesthetic, philosophical or personal — only a few people, if any, actually know (Hijikata died in 1986 at age 58).

“Ohno-sensei stopped dancing for about 10 years from 1968, when Hijikata rejected him. In 1977, Ohno-sensei wanted to dance again, in a solo dance, and Hijikata directed him. No one can explain Hijikata’s thinking,” relates Morishita.

They reunited for “Admiring La Argentina,” a new production that went on to win the Dance Critics’ Circle Award for 1977, and this return to form led to an especially productive time in Ohno’s life. He traveled internationally, astounding audiences, as Morishita says, by showing “that such an old man, who was not beautiful, could dance so stunningly.”

People sought him out to speak about dance, and butoh’s popularity took off overseas. British singer Antony Hegarty, a longtime fan of Ohno’s, testifies to his reach with a written obituary in the Guardian newspaper in which he romantically desribes first discovering the performer “in 1987, (when) I stumbled across an image of Ohno on a peeling poster in the streets of Angers in northwest France.”

Ohno’s success abroad led to a new period for butoh, with performers staging more and more productions overseas, which, as a result, has led to a decrease in the number of major performances in Japan. Yet it’s natural that a dance form as strange and expressive as butoh, reflecting the pure artistic power of its spiritual founder, could not be contained within one country — after Ohno gave his dance and hence butoh to Japan, he couldn’t help but give it to the world.