By Jack Egan

“You cannot tell the dancer from the dance.” -- William Butler Yeats

Few artists are as closely identified with an art form as is centenarian
dancer Kazuo Ohno with butoh. An avant-garde amalgam of dance,
theater and mime, butoh emerged in the late 1950’s out of the social and
artistic tumult of post-World War II Japan.

The globally-renowned Japanese performance artist—who is considered
one of the most important figures in all of modern dance—Ohno turns
101 in October. That birthday is being commemorated by a series of
exhibits and tributes in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Ohno was present at the creation of what was originally known as
Ankoku Butoh, or “dance of utter darkness,” later abbreviated to just
butoh. The single word used today in turn has a different, more
elemental meaning: literally “stomping dance,” which connotes butoh’s
earth-bound nature in contrast with the skyward leaps characteristic of
European ballet.

As the first and foremost butoh star, Ohno served as the vessel  for
artistic rebel and choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata. The latter codified the
choreography and layed down the aesthetic  foundation for butoh:  
fiercely avant-garde, with homoerotic and transgender tropes along with
elements reminiscent of Japanese theater such as Noh drama.

Over the decades, Ohno’s butoh style steadily evolved. He drifted from
the shocking grotesquerie of Hijikata’s original conception to a style more
improvisational, existential, plastic in movement--and universal. Ohno,
usually with face and body covered with a plaster white impasto, often
androgynous in dress, he could project pathos and also humor.
Ultimately he evolved into a type of Everyman—and Everywoman.  Or as
he once put it, “the dancer’s costume is to wear the universe.”

Now wheel-chair bound, Ohno danced until he was in his early 90’s and
then continued to teach his technique to students who journeyed from
afar to his Yokohama studio, seeking inspiration along with insights into
his techniques.

In his decades of dancing, he was frequently partnered by his son
Yoshito, also a butoh pioneer and a notable artist in his own right. Now
69, and still at the height of his powers, Yoshito is performing a special
solo butoh work at the Japan Society in New York on his father’s 101st
birthday on October 27. The date has further significance because it also
happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Society.  Kazuo Ohno gave a
number of memorable performances at the Japan Society. The last was in

There’s a parallel cinematic celebration, “Kazuo Ohno: Three Decades of
Butoh Dance on Film,” which takes place October 25 at the Segal Theater
Center on the Manhattan campus of CUNY. Produced by John Solt of and Jeff Janisheski of CAVE, the event features
afternoon and evening screenings of Ohno’s legendary 1960’s “Mr. O”
films, directed by Chiaki Nagano. Several rare videos documenting
complete performances are part of the program. The highmoonoon film
fest is also being presented at Doshisha University in Tokyo.

The Dancer

Kazuo Ohno’s career as the world’s foremost butoh dancer really didn’t
take off until the second half of his life. He first made a mark in an early
butoh work when he was over 50.

Ohno was born in 1906  in Hakodate City on Hokkaido, Japan’s big
northern island. He underwent a transformational experience in 1929
when he was taken to the Imperial Theater to see Spanish dancer
Antonia Merce, who had modernized flamenco. She was known as “La
Argentina.” The impact she had on Ohno proved to be life-changing,
triggering a desire to explore and ultimately dedicate his life to dance.

He began training with two of Japan’s foremost innovators, Baku Ishii
and Takaya Eguchi. The latter had taken lessons with Mary Wigman, a
pioneer  in the evolution of modern dance in Europe, providing Ohno
with an introduction to the techniques of “Neue Tanz.”

Ohno’s first solo performance took place in 1949 in “Jellyfish Dance,”
which he choreographed. It  was based on an incident while returning
from his service in the Japanese military during World War II:  soldiers on
boats who had died of hunger and disease were thrown overboard into a
sea filled with jellyfish.

Lightning struck in the mid-1950’s when the two creative founders of
butoh  first met:  Ohno encountered Tatsumi Hijikata, the creator of
butoh.  Hijikata encouraged Ohno to learn the new dance he had
evolved, ultimately transforming him into the world’s leading butoh artist.

The work that in 1959 put butoh on the cultural map in Japan—as a
success de scandale--was “Kinjiki,” or Forbidden Colors, based on a
novel by leading Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. (The word kinjiki in
Japanese is also a euphemism for homosexual.)  Ohno, as well as his son
Yoshito, then only 21, both performed in the work.  A scene in which
Yoshito crushed a live chicken between his legs outraged audiences.  
Hijikata became infamous as the bad boy of Japanese culture.

One of Ohno’s most memorable solo performances was “La Argentina
Sho” (Admiring La  Argentina).  Choreographed by Hijikata. It
referenced the Spanish dancer who was Ohno’s initial inspiration. The
work and Ohno’s interpretation grabbed attention wherever it was
performed. In 1980 he was honored with the prestigious Dance Critic’s
Circle Award.

Ohno’s international reputation grew during the 1980s when he
conducted frequent tours through Europe, the United States, South
America, Australia and Asia. In 1980 he was invited to perform in the
14th International Festival in Nancy, France. He subsequently toured
London, Stuttgart, Paris and Stockholm.  His first appearance in the
United States was in 1981. He was encouraged to come to this country by
Ellen Stewart, the founder of New York’s La Mama Experimental
Theater Group.

Other important works by Ohno which Hijikata created and directed
include “My Mother” and “Dead Sea Letter.” Works created and danced
by Ohno include “Water Lillies,” “Ka Cho Fu Getsu” (Flowers-Birds-
Wind-Moon) and “The Road in Heaven, the Road in Earth.”

Ohno has also acted in films.  The most prominent roles were in three
films directed by Chiago Nagano: “The Portrait of Mr. O” (1969);
“Mandala of Mr. O” (1971); and “Mr. O’s Book of the Dead.” And he has
authored several books on butoh including  The Palace Soars through the
Sky, a poetic collection of essays and captivating photographs; and
Words of Workshop, based on a series of lectures he delivered.

The Dance

Butoh has been described as avant garde, surreal, primal, mystical and
ritualistic. One word it’s not associated with is “traditional.” When butoh
first burst on the scene in the mid-1950’s, it was even considered
subversive and revolutionary.  Taboo subjects were served up with
relish.  Conservative Japanese audiences were outraged. But the shock
value helped gain it more than just notoriety. It caught the imagination of
younger Japanese artists. Up to that time, Japan had not developed its
own form of indigenous avant-garde dance. Modern dance companies
existed in Japan, but they imitated formats and ideas initiated in Europe
and the United States during earlier decades of the Twentieth Century.

One way to view butoh is as a tree, with its gnarled trunk, deep roots and
many branches. The trunk is composed of the innovations and teachings
of Tatsumi Hijikata and the performances of Kazuo Ohno, Hijikata’s
artistic collaborator.

Unlike other forms of dance, butoh does not depend on a series of steps
or movements that can be learned by a dancer and repeated in a
performance. Instead Hijikata evolved a set of physical postures and
facial expressions. These are not meant to be slavishly imitated but serve
as take-off points. Subjects of a butoh dance can be corporeal—an old
woman trying to keep a basket of grain balanced on her head fighting a
windstorm as she walks—or as insubstantial as the wind and the rain

There is also a mind-development aspect of bhuto, requiring intense
concentration exercises. That’s why it has sometimes been compared to
training for one of Asia’s martial arts. And some have discerned a
shamanistic component harkening back to the origins of dance.

The roots of butoh were nourished by an artistic underground that
flourished in Tokyo in the early 1950’s, somewhat like the Beatnik
movement in the United States. Both were anti-establishment,  but
expressed their revolt against authority in very different ways.  In this
post-World War II period, cultural stagnation triggered new ferment.  In
Tokyo, a group of dancers, writers and theatrical performers-- including
Hijikata and novelist Yukio Mishima-- were entranced by dada and
surrealism.  Intellectual inputs also came from “walk on the wild side”
writers such as the Marquis de Sade, Antonin Artaud, the Comte de
Lautreaumont and, especially Jean Genet. All sought to dive into the
dark and forbidden.

The branches of butoh, meanwhile, have grown in many directions, going
far beyond the basics articulated by Hijikata.  Butoh has spawned dance
companies throughout the world, including many hybrids of the Japanese
original. In “An Art Form in Transition” Don McLeod writes: “Because it
gives us a halted, reverberating picture of our muted struggle to be
human in this technological age of the disenfranchised body, butoh is
ever changing and is here to stay.”

Jack Egan is a journalist who for over three decades has covered subjects ranging from global business and
financial markets to Hollywood and the film industry. As a result of numerous visits, he’s experienced Japan
firsthand and written about the country’s economy, society and culture.

Egan served as the New York financial correspondent for the Washington Post, a columnist for New York
magazine; an assistant managing editor for U.S. News & World Report,  senior editor at Forbes and business
editor for special features at Variety. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, Below the Line and
Director’s Guild of America Quarterly. He can be reached at

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Kazuo flowers, Amherst, Mass. 1993

Kazuo Ohno in Hokkaido, 1994

Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno Studio

Ohno Kazuo: Pioneer of Avant Garde Dance

The Dead Start Running

Keiko no kotoba (Workshop Words)

The Androgynous Ghost in a Cup Filled with Ocean
Kazuo Ohno & Butoh
photo:  H. Tsukamoto