- Kazuo Ohno's World: From Without and Within
In 1980, at the age of seventy-one, the butoh innovator Kazuo Ohno stunned the audience at the Nancy International Theatre Festival with his work "Admiring La Argentina." Already a respected artist in Japan, he soon gained international recognition, becoming one of the most influential and admired figures in contemporary dance history. Kazuo Ohno's World: From Without and Within brings together two texts previously published in Japanese (son Yoshito Ohno's "Food for the Soul" was published in 1999 and Ohno's "Workshop Words" in 1997). The impetus for and the centerpiece of the book is the collection of 129 photographs chosen from the more than four thousand in Kazuo Ohno's archives. These evocative and artfully arranged photos show Ohno's performance, rehearsal, and daily life over the course of four decades, vividly portraying the artist as body in motion. Toshio Mizohata, founder of the Ohno Dance Studio Archives, states in the book's introduction, "Our [curatorial] decisions were not made upon purely aesthetic merit as such but rather for how the images revealed and drew forth Kazuo's interior world" (p.4).
Though the photos document the decay of the dancing body, they also reveal the flowering of Ohno's aesthetic. Early photos show Ohno elegantly and self-consciously posed. The later photos demonstrate a different energy: attenuated, almost emaciated, limbs in crooked angles, mouth gaping, gnarled hands clawing and carving the air. In such photos Ohno looks most alive: a wizened, lithe, roiling body, capable of fluid and explosive expressive motion. What also emerges from this collection is a portrait of an artist fascinated by his own portrait. Both Mizohata and Yoshito Ohno describe Kazuo Ohno's peculiar relationship with the camera lens as one of seemingly addictive proportions. As Mizohata notes, "Kazuo Ohno dances for the photograph. In front of the lens he is a complete natural" (p. 4). The younger Ohno describes how he and his father strategically use the camera as a choreographic tool: at a point in each new work's creation the Ohnos invite a photographer to the studio. He notes, "For some inexplicable reason, the work in progress does not seem to jell until we go through the experience of being observed from without" (p. 67). The camera's pervasive presence in Ohno's life demonstrates his refusal to delimit separate spheres of public/private, [End Page 417] rehearsal/performance, on stage/off stage. Ohno courts photographers, granting them unrestricted access to his stage, dressing room, studio, and home, allowing them to shoot within inches of him as he dances or as he applies the shiro-nuri, the white makeup of butoh. The camera functions as audience for Ohno, providing him with both inspiration to create and permission to be.
As the photos portray Ohno's body from multiple angles, the words, which serve as connective tissue for those images, provide a similarly refracted view of the artist's life and work. As the book shifts in mode (and author), it allows the reader to encounter Ohno prismatically: as a dancer, as a teacher, as a father, as a historical subject, and as pure image. The play of image and text gives the sensation of moving through a museum gallery or, more specifically, a family photo album of treasured material. In "Food for the Soul," Yoshito Ohno acts as narrator and interpreter, pondering the mysteries of his father's life and art. Pervasive in the younger Ohno's carefully drawn words are the challenges of his simultaneous roles of collaborator, director, apprentice, and son. The first chapter—with subtitles such as "The Eye," "The Hand," and "The Back"—parses Ohno's dancing body. In subsequent chapters Yoshito Ohno describes his father's performance aesthetic, his family life, and finally the development and structure of his signature work "Admiring La Argentina." Yoshito Ohno grapples with the enigma of Kazuo Ohno, at times puzzling on...