Kazuo Ohno's World: From Without and Within (review)
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Kazuo Ohno's World: From Without and Within by Kazuo Ohno and Yoshito Ohno. John Barrett, trans. Wesleyan Univ. Press, Middletown, CT, U.S.A., 2004. 323 pp. Trade. ISBN: 0-8195-6694-2.

Butoh means to meander . . . to move in twists and turns between the realms of the living and the dead.

—Kazuo Ohno (p. 205) [End Page 257]

Who is Kazuo Ohno? What has he to say about dance, the body, gesture, performance, thought, memory, the soul, death, freedom and love? How has our experience of the body changed as a result of our encounter with Butoh, which he, along with Tatsumi Hijikata, created?

These are the questions that animate this book on an exceptional man, who in 1977 at the age of 71, with his Admiring La Argentina, would soon become an essential force in dance internationally— after a hiatus in public performance of nearly a decade.

Written and compiled by his son and closest collaborator, Yoshito Ohno, this book is recommended to those who wish to understand something more of what it is hoped they have viewed on stage. For performers and creators, the book will return them to their initial reasons for having launched themselves into art and enable them to clarify what sustains them and why. Its effects, like those that stem from Artaud's writings, I believe, will grow in importance as Butoh diffuses through studios and schools and its origins in crisis become more historical than immediate.

The book has two sections in two voices. Yoshito Ohno writes the first, "Food for the Soul," in response to 129 photos of his father's dance creations, many never published before. He pays particular attention to the face, mouth, voice, eyes, ear, hand and back, then turns to the language of performance by discussing falling, standing, walls, fluidity, makeup, integrating photo documentation into the dance creation process and more. A biography of Kazuo Ohno's family life, his nine-year service in the Japanese army with its traumatic World War II conclusion in New Guinea, his sudden impulses during curtain calls and his epochal meeting with Tatsumi Hijikata in 1954 follows.

Part Two includes 154 aphorisms transcribed from recordings made during Kazuo Ohno's workshops at his rehearsal studio, which he built with timber donated from a school where he worked. Twenty-four photos accompany the text. Kazuo Ohno speaks of many things, of course, from the common challenges we face in daily life to his relationship with flowers, insects and animals, and the dancer's responsibilities in performance. He tells us:

Discard whatever mental fantasies and ideas you may have. Don't think about where to place your feet. Forget all that, and follow your impulses . . . . Be spontaneous. How could words ever explain how to move? Just do it. I want dance to spring from an inexplicable source . . . . I want to dance in such a way that deeply touches you (p. 221).

And he notes, humorously:

There's no need to memorize gestures and movements because, no matter what I do, I'll forget them anyway. The essential thing is that the experience remains perfectly ingrained in my mind, in my soul. That's what comes with repeated practice. It's of little consequence if I forget what I practice because, despite myself, I'm constantly absorbing the fruit of my endeavors (p. 273).

I attended two performances by Kazuo Ohno at the Japan Society in New York: "My Mother," in 1996, and "Requiem for the Twentieth Century," with Yoshito Ohno, in 1999. Performing solo and in duet at the ages of 90 and 92, respectively, is more than admirable. Performing with poignancy, transparency, directness and strength, despite a body in decline, is more than astonishing; it is perfectly human, without condition or qualm. And that is the greatest compliment I can pay to this master of dance, Kazuo Ohno.

Oh, yes: After his 1999 performance in New York, he held a public question-and- answer session with a translator. From that session, I recall two questions and answers as much characteristic of his audience as of him. A New York actress I know asked Ohno how he prepared...


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