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KAZUO OHNO’S WORLD: From Without and Within, by Kazuo Ohno and Yoshito Ohno, translated by John Barrett, introduction by Toshio Mizohata. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004, 344 pp., 154 b/w photos, $34.95 (paper).

The spotlight focuses on an old woman, presumably a member of the audience, as she unfurls her parasol and struggles to her feet. Slowly she staggers down the aisle and agonizingly pulls herself onto the stage. Apparently torn between rage and regret, all alone on the boards, she dies.

This is the famous opening of dancer Kazuo Ohno’s 1977 piece, “Admiring La Argentina.” The performer was 71 years old, and this work opened a new phase of butoh dance. It was also of an intensity that made Ohno’s worldwide reputation and led one critic to call him “perhaps one of the greatest dancers of all time.”

I was in the audience at the Dai Ichi Seimei Hall in Tokyo that November and remember the audience’s astonishment, followed at once by their concern. This was no simple drag act — Ohno’s use of gender was never frivolous. Rather, it was the re-enactment of the theme of all of his work — death and transfiguration.

In this work of several parts, the old woman (later identified as a male prostitute) is reborn as a young girl and eventually becomes La Argentina — a dancer now dead and otherwise unremembered — whom Ohno had seen in his youth and never forgotten.

Throughout the various transformations, Ohno disconcerted his audience with his complete seriousness, his utter identification with his character and the almost organic progression of his dance. He was also, before our eyes, consolidating a new kind of choreography of butoh.

Although its elements had been around for a time (Ohno’s first recital was in 1949 and his first appearance with Tatsuimi Hijikata, the other “father of butoh,” was in 1960), this was the first work so thoroughly choreographed that it could be precisely repeated and become part of a repertoire.

How this extraordinary man, now still active in world of butoh at the age of 98, achieved his art is the subject of this beautifully translated and startlingly candid account by his son, Yoshito Ohno.

Published as “Tamashi no Kate (Food for the Soul)” in 1999, it chronicles the progress of his father and evaluates both his means and his results. The second part of this translation is given over to “Keiko no Kotoba (Workshop Words),” a series of aphorisms by Kazuo Ohno himself, recorded as he used them during his lessons.

Ohno’s initial study was German expressionist dance, as created by Mary Wigman’s disciple Harold Kreuztberg, who toured Japan in 1934. The Japanese dancer’s early work was thus much influenced by this Ausdruckstanz choreography, and the resulting butoh style is still noticeably expressionistic.

The style became personal at about the time that Ohno first met Hijikata, in 1954. They were working together shortly afterward; the contact was mutually fruitful. The younger man contributed much, and his choreography is still part of “Admiring La Argentina.” At the same time, Ohno’s influence on Hijikata was evident. After their collaboration had run its course, Ohno’s son wrote with characteristic candor: “I had the impression that Hijikata had, on the whole, squeezed as much out of Kazuo as he could.”

Their styles, though mutually beneficial, were also antithetical. Hijikata stressed the importance of form in dance. Once the structure was there, the content would emerge. Ohno on the other hand “even to this day, holds the diametrically opposite view: Form comes of itself only insofar as there is a spiritual content to begin with.”

It was this “spiritual” content that so arrested the attention of the first-nighters at “Admiring La Argentina.” The old lady was dying before our eyes. At the same time, this was being expressed through a choreography that was strictly formalized. The choreography of this first section was in fact by Hijikata, but the performance was, of course, all Ohno’s. So one could see the conflict between the men — between form and content.

What made this particular performance so unique, however, and what was to continue to vivify all of Ohno’s later appearances, was the extraordinary intensity, the expressionist “expression” in the splayed hands, the mascaraed and agonized eyes, the stumbling steps.

We were witnessing what a dancer could become, and the effect was both theatrical and moving. This was a paradoxical perception that would run through all of Ohno’s performances. It was this that made them unforgettable.

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