Jonathan Spayde

Dancing with Ohno

An homage to the  Japanese  modern dance pioneer Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010),
co-founder of
 ankoku butoh ("dance of darkness").

     While the poet wrestles with the horses in his brain and the sculptor
wounds his eyes on the hard spark of alabaster, the dancer battles the air
around her, air that threatens at any moment to destroy her harmony or to
open huge empty spaces where her rhythm will be annihilated.
--Federico Garcia Lorca, from "In Praise of Antonia Merce, La Argentina"

     Dragging your head at a tilt. Dragging your heart. Your pale and
almost sightless eyes fill with a pure liquid. Old cloth moves in the wind
around your wasting limbs. Inner ear, muscles, heart always gauging
movement off equilibrium...toward the floor (death), toward surrender to
the fall that turns into a stamp of joy or holds itself back as a swaying, like
the willow.           
(music: Josquin des Pres, Royal Fanfare, Tokyo Brass Quintet)
     Frail hand in the air, black mouth wide open, Ohno feebly wards off or
summons the power outside and beyond himself. There is no human
creature older, stronger, more frail, more often a victim, more a
shaman-conqueror of space and time.
     In him the creak of the cordage and the delicate settling and resettling
of old boats at anchor in Hakodate harbor: Tsubaki-maru, Kurozan-maru.
Motor Ship "Camellia." Motor Ship "Dark Mountain."
     In him the exquisite unimportance of small roadside flowers and the
ancient-seeming tedium and stillness of the shadows inside the doors of
the dying Chinese shops on Mott Street, or the old
shuls  on Delancey,
inside the screened-in-porches of the forgotten towns of our Republic, just
a small lawn away from the two-lane.
     He is in Death's drag from his visit to the underworld. Death has lent
him her makeup case. This is his charge from the Queen of Great Death:
be her paladin. Carry her guerdon in the upper world. Rescue Great
Death's honor. Show her disheveled grace to the frightened ones who have
forgotten to be courteous to her, and kind, and travesty her as an Abyss.
  I dance at the place where the large cosmos meets the small cosmos.
I stand in the large cosmos and everywhere my hand reaches is the small
cosmos. I understand where the meeting place is.   
     Looking for solitude and time to work, Ohno climbed a mountain.  At
the drizzly summit he stopped to rest his weary legs. He saw a human
figure, standing with its back turned some forty or fifty paces down a
gravel track on the opposite approach to the top.
     Ohno was moved by something in the way the stranger held his body.
Somehow the slight curve of his back expressed extreme suffering, and his
motionlessness and obliviousness to everything around him suggested
dedication to an art or a cause. That, at any rate, was what Ohno chose to
believe as he approached the stranger . As he came closer he could hear
faint, rapid intakes or expulsions of breath, as if the figure were crying or
practicing a discipline of the breath.
     Ohno's heart contracted. The figure began to turn. The breathing grew
louder, rasping and hissing.  Ohno could see that the side of the figure's
face was obscured by the side of his drawstring hood. Somehow he
guessed that the face was dark, dark, deeply sunburned, and shining as if

     Ohno is looking for the lost heart of the wound. There is a marvelous
spirit inside the wound. It is sturdy and ancient, and it says: I want to sing
an aria.

The scars on your body will scab over and heal in time. As for the
scars on your mind, if you accept and endure them, the experience will
bring you both pleasure and sorrow in time. Eventually you will attain a
world of poetry that can be expressed only through your body, not by

     Deeper through the window of the wound into a dim room where old
things rest, waiting to remember their names: Veil. Radio. Belgian lace

     Sheet music yellow at the edges. A comb of fragrant boxwood. Curling
iron. Cut-glass vase. Mementoes of feminine rituals long forgotten.
Imaginary treasures of une femme d'artifice who stands still and tunes his
body to the memory of their presence. Ohno's face fills the cone of light
under a lampshade. His face forms and floats away. From the street you
might have glimpsed it, as if it were traversing an ancient silver-backed

     From the radio a faint melody, crosshatched with static and fading:
Andalucia. Montparnasse. Tokyo 1929:
More than fifty years ago I saw Argentina dance for the first time. I
was a student in a gymnastics school then....I  saw the dance of Argentina
from the top seat of the third balcony of  the Imperial Theatre. ...When I
saw her dance I understood it as the creation of the world.

     The durability of the bent and listening body. Pure lyricism of its
attention. It hovers just an inch over the earth, icon of sorrowful readiness,
angel of history.
     History of the waltz, history of the fandango, of les amours tristes, of
the  act of worship (interrupted), of the atomic bomb. Bent over the world?
Also bent before the world. Steps that falter by design, center of gravity
that shifts backward, off balance, then forward toward the friendly void.
     Rowing, rowing--Ohno stands in the boat that rides the swelling black
water. The audience is rooted to the shore like a tree as Ohno passes.
Ohno, rooted at center stage like one of the oaks of Mamre, passes.
     1968: Ohno's collaborator Tatsumi Hijikata has a gold penis strapped
over his own penis as he plays Christ the golden aviator,  lifted high over
the faces of the crowd. (There is no art but the art of the body.) In the
tent-world of the Japanese avant-garde of the Sixties everyone is "dirty
and crazy," the doomed, addicted Hijikata most of all; and overhead the
helicopters of the Metropolitan Police and the Self-Defense Force pound
the humid air.
     Ohno as the grandfather even then, already sixty, in perfect command
of the fire that in Hijikata blazed up, burned out, and left the familiar legend
of martyrdom.
     Waves of air concussing the red canvas tent-roof.
     Ohno standing off-center, swaying: cunning fragility etherializing a body
as robust as a gymnast's. The passing away, then always the return from
the lip of the grave for another showing. The rhythm of permanent
revolution, revolution that feeds no one, frees everyone; frees no one,
feeds everyone.
Episode in the Creation
(music: the Great Litany, Orthodox Church of Osaka)

     Not being able to help even in a small way in the creation of Heaven
and Earth, I fall on my back, feet Heaven-pointing, as if standing upside

     I was invited to the Nancy Festival....It was a night in May. My
performance started long before I left the hotel....My feet stepped all the
steps of dance in the car to the church. When we arrived at the church, I
climbed the stone steps to the entrance one by one alternating heavy and
light steps . In my mind, I only heard the footsteps of Jesus, who walked
along with me. I would not have walked so lightly like a child otherwise....I
entered the church.
     When I looked at the way to the altar I suddenly felt as if an endless
road started right there. Then the majestic sound of the pipe organ poured
down from above like a flood of light. In the flood of sound I walked from
the center to the altar through many believers...The footsteps were light
and innocent. As I proceeded, the image of Jesus climbing the hill with
the cross on his back came to my mind. I thanked him for his pain. And I
lightly walked on. They should have been solemn footsteps, but strangely
they were so light! I believe I had a divine revelation of the lightness that
contained heaviness within.

(music: W. A. Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331)

     When Ohno came to Israel and walked the sand and shale around the
Dead Sea, his feet listened.  A sand-lifting breeze ruffled the white fragrant
broom-blossoms too, then it died and the silence was broken only by a
faraway donkey-bell.
     It is the moment before the droning prayers of afternoon. The gnats
mourn, rising and falling on the renewed air.
     Probes grow downward from Ohno's feet, vegetal extensions of his
heart that search the dry earth like burrowing animals.
     Beneath the desert earth, far below the deposits of Davidic and
Hasmonean, Herodian and Mameluke coins and shards and junk, there is
something dark and still, maybe a chamber in shining black basalt, a
chamber in which a beautiful black-skinned baby giant is growing.

Ohno quotes and other material adapted from "Kazuo Ohno Doesn't Commute," "Selections
from the Prose of Kazuo Ohno," and "Performance Text: The Dead Sea,"  all from The Drama
Review , Summer 1986.