Takao Kawaguchi pays homage to butoh icon Kazuo Ohno by retracing his every move

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Contributing Writer

To see a performance of butoh, the Japanese dance form in which the body twists and contorts on stage, is to almost feel like you’re being transported to another world. And noone was more otherworldly than the late Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010).

Performance artist Takao Kawaguchi pays homage to the butoh pioneer in his most recet work, “About Kazuo Ohno: Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces.” It recently finished a successful two-year world tour and will be shown in Saitama on Dec. 2 and 3.

“In Europe and the United States, there were a lot of people in the audience who had seen Kazuo Ohno perform 20 years ago,” Kawaguchi tells The Japan Times. “They were so excited to ‘see’ him again through me, and I could really feel his popularity; because of him they welcomed me, too. He was so full of positive energy and, in Europe especially, people really cherish his memory.”

Ohno, a physical education teacher from Hokkaido, developed butoh as a dance form alongside Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-86) in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Ohno famously performed in white body makeup and often incorporated whimsical or grotesque movements into his performances. Butoh is celebrated for its avant-garde movements, its unflinching look at taboo topics and its comedic connections to the theater of the absurd. Add the fact that Ohno premiered his first solo work, “Admiring La Argentina,” in his 70s and the dance could also be seen as a defiant celebration of an exuberant life force at any age.

In creating “About Kazuo Ohno,” which premiered in Japan four years ago, Kawaguchi’s main artistic goal was to honor the master through a careful reproduction of his most famous works and movements. It was particularly challenging as Kawaguchi had no previous experience in butoh and had never seen Ohno perform live. In fact, his fascination with the legendary dancer started with a photograph.

A few years before Ohno’s death, Kawaguchi attended a butoh exhibition at a local museum. Ohno’s image “haunted” him.

“Even in a photograph, his statue and aura was so beautiful,” he recalls. “I was compelled to buy a copy of the photo as a poster from the museum shop. The poster is still hanging on a wall in my room.”

Still, it was almost a decade before Kawaguchi developed the idea of a butoh-oriented performance, which came together in a rather spontaneous manner.

“All of a sudden Ohno surfaced into my consciousness as a performance idea,” he says. “I realized that I wanted to work with his movements to understand butoh on a deeper level and not just as a concept or an idea.”

Kawaguchi’s technique involved focused, deliberate imitation.

“My approach was to copy from as much as I could see on a video,” he says. “Ohno is improvising, of course, so to copy or repeat anybody’s improvisation, even my own, is very difficult. But I tried hard to be faithful to the video and to not intervene with my own interpretation — just to create a representation of the video movements themselves.”

Also inspired by a series of avant-garde films Ohno made in the late ’60s with director Chiaki Nagano, Kawaguchi performs his own improvisations influenced by the whimsical, abstract movements in the films to open the show. His improvisation starts while his audience is still in the lobby and before the curtain has even risen.

“I start when the audience is arriving because Ohno used to do that,” Kawaguchi says. “He would go to the lobby and, if there was a chance, he would play a tape recorder and start dancing, simply to make something happen. In the ’60s and ’70s, artists did that, they just went out to make things happen, and Ohno was a master of this irrepressible spontaneity.

“I like that spirit, too. From the moment I surprise my audience, waiting for the show, I value the unexpected encounters that will start our long journey together. A lot of warm feelings, memories flashing back, coquettish humor that all evokes Ohno’s irresistible positive energy.”

Kawaguchi’s career has been marked by such energetic risks, challenges and creative collaborations with a wide variety of avant-garde artists, from Khoomei throat singer Fuyuki Yamakawa to popular media artist Daito Manabe. His work is often described as on the cutting edge of performance art, defying classification or genre.

To start this project, he connected with Ohno’s son, Yoshito, to get his blessing.

“He was more than happy to give me permission,” Kawaguchi says. “More than that, we were able to borrow some of his father’s costumes and all the materials I needed from the archive to study his father’s movements.”

Yoshito was on hand for the show’s premiere in 2013 and has continued to actively support the production. A personalized homage is included during the piece, as a poignant video reveals Yoshito “dancing” with a hand puppet of his father, a special gift to Ohno from a Mexican artist before he died.

Acceptance from the wider butoh community in Japan toward Kawaguchi’s project has been mixed, however.

“There were other people who really encouraged me besides Yoshito, including a disciple of Kazuo Ohno’s,” he says. “But others were reluctant, feeling perhaps a sense of taboo toward copying the master. The butoh heritage is very strong, and I am coming from outside, so it did provoke some strong feelings. In a way, I am more nervous, bringing the production back to Japan again. For me, it is another big challenge to perform here.”

“About Kazuo Ohno” copies movements from the dancer’s best-loved works, “Admiring La Argentina” (1977), “My Mother” (1981) and “The Dead Sea” (1985). In one sense, Kawaguchi is performing a duet with the past. But the application of the kind of technology that allows him to do so also gives a nod to butoh’s possible future.

“About Kazuo Ohno: Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces” will be performed by Takao Kawaguchi on Dec. 2 and 3 at Saitama Arts Theater in Saitama (3 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 048-858-5500). For more information, visit www.saf.or.jp/en/stages/detail/4149 or www.kawaguchitakao.com.