In 2017, after taking a workshop with photographer Manuel Vason in Mexico City, I started a curious project I named just «Photo-performance», with the aim of photographing my inner ghosts during the live movement of my Butoh performance. I published in my photography page the resulting photographs of the first exercises I made.
Since then my idea of working with photography during my live performance has evolved in a different direction, specially with the results of my performance event «The Inner Passing of Time» in Guangzhou, China in January 2021, a work where photography is an extended part of that live performance. There, I could work with the photographs taken by different photographers and create stories coming from the different perception of time they caught during my performance event. The time of the performance is extended and it’s still going till the moment the new spectators watch the photographers’s stories.
That for sure was not anymore catching ghosts during the performance.
When I had the opportunity to explore again The Inner Passing of Time in Dali in November 2021, I was not looking to use photography at all, but the photographs that Canadian photographer Husain Amer shot of my performance made me change my idea. At the end of the show he told me, «As soon as you started dancing I couldn’t stop shooting. I didn’t have the time to change settings, so many photographs could have the wrong focus or light. I’m going to give you the USB with all the photographs and you do with them as you wish.»
When I saw the files I found many interesting images with a clear focus, light, etc, -very good as documents of this specific show. But it was the others that attracted me the most: those photographs that were not clear, that were not focused, those that caught the outer movement blurring the image, but most important to me, those what I believe caught the «inner movement» of my work on stage.
I decided to work with those «errors» with Francis Bacon’s work in mind when processing each of the photos. Bacon’s images were a very important influence in Hijikata’s inspiration for his Butoh-notation, and it is now a very good inspiration for this series of the project I’ve named «Baconian bodies».
Then I could notice that I was working again with those «ghosts» of my first exploration with the Photo-performance; those photographs of 2017 also were «Baconian bodies». I saw that the line of this exploration is still there and I’m happy that is getting clear as a project. That’s why I started a new website that join the two projects (and those that come in the near future) to show the results:
Butoh is a mysterious, dark and difficult discipline, it is elusive and complex. Its borders are blurred, it emerged within the world of dance but it is very close to performance art and theater itself. Visually it seems identifiable due to the unique way their performers are used to make up their entire body in white, but that is not an imperative, a Butoh dancer can go naked and without makeup or masked and with huge and quirky costumes. It seems that most of his movements are slow and dense, but it is not an imperative either, the impulsiveness that they feed on leads to enormous variations in speed and quality of movement and energy.
Butoh was created in the 1950s as part of the avant-garde movement around the world, it was initiated as a response to the enormous weight of tradition in Japanese performing arts and as a counterweight to the North American cultural invasion that caused the defeat of the second world war. Butoh emerged as part of a rebellious urban subculture in Tokyo, tackling scandalous issues, and looking for a new body with no cultural codifications in its movement.
Today, 70 years later, the spectrum of their creative themes and goals has expanded in such a way that it has been dissolved inside the consumer society and inside neo-hippie, holistic and ritualistic movements; but a good part of its underground and anti-establishment vibe remains. It is no longer Japanese, it is created and re-created all over the world with the freedom contributed by different individuals from different cultures, and being anti-traditional, of course there is no tradition to follow.
Butoh is also a performing art of dedication and commitment, of honesty and encounter, of artistic and personal manifestation. Butoh speaks of the entire universe in its own movement, of religion in the only way our individuality can refer to it, of philosophy as if the source of philosophy were knowledge by movement, of the intangible soul that impulses the movement of any person, of life and death always flowing around each other. The boundaries between the real and the magical are blurred in this dance. It is a dance that comes from digging into nature, into the other, into our bodies, and yes, our souls. Butoh wants to bring back the sensual movement of our memories, of our ancestors, then we dance with our inner presences and with our inner ghosts.
Butoh is an artistic language communicated by dancing the inner self and the primary impulses of the body.
One of the most clarifying moments in my Butoh practice was when, during a session at Kazuo Ohno’s studio in Kamihoshikawa, Yoshito Ohno told us about an illuminating experience lived by his father: when Kazuo’s mother was dying she told him that she had the feeling that a fish was swimming all over her body, concluding Yoshito that in that moment Kazuo’s mother was offering him a great Butoh lesson. Then he invited us to move with the feeling of that fish swimming inside us.
That use of the image with a such a powerful context as a total motive to dance gave me, in practice, a deep comprehension of the Butoh technique that Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno developed during many years.
Nowadays this experience has become a common exercise in Butoh workshops around the world, with teachers and guides repeating the moment of Kazuo Ohno’s mother death but changing the fish in carps or instead of one fish adding thousands swimming inside the body, mixing it with Hijikata’s «the billion insects eating your body». Some even forget to mention Kazuo’s mother.
It was when I could read parts of Kazuo’s own texts that I found a live recollection of his words of this fantastic experience:
«Before dying, my mother said to me: Inside my body a sole is swimming!» Several years after her death I dreamed of her, who, turned into a worm, walked on my hand, I wanted to scream: Mom! Then he transmitted me a great idea about Butoh. “(1)
And then I could arrived at the first text he wrote about it:
“When my mother was dying she was dripping with sweat which instantly wetted the mattress and the tatami mat underneath. I changed the mattress over and over again, but soon I found the new mattress steaming. It was a scene fearful to look at. I realized how frightful the last flaming of life could be when a person is about to burn herself out.
It was then my mother mumbled in her unconsciousness.
«In my body, a sole is swimming.”
As if she were trying to find something or to stare at something. She said it peacefully and joyfully. Those were the last words of my mother.
That was her will for me! (. . .]
A sole is swimming in my body. A sole. While she was putting up with her pain with her round body close to the bottom of the sea, by and by, her body must have been flattened. And I am sure that her eyes travelled far away and got many things from the sea. […]
The origin that supports dance is life. It is the soul. When she was faced with death she gave me the revelation that had the most important meaning for me.
I felt as if I was given a whole chunk of love in the steam.” (2)
I’ve been training with this idea of a fish swimming inside my body since that moment I listened to it from master Yoshito, and every time it has been a new possibility, a new movement or feeling I didn’t experience before, but most important, the impulse is so concrete in real life (the mother’s death, the fish, the swimming, the feeling of something out of you that provokes the inner movement) that it’s still as touching to me as it was the first time I experienced it. Whit the second part just mentioned in the first text, when the mother transformed in a worm walks on Kazuo’s hand, I’ve found not only about impulses and images, but also about telling a story during the exploration with those inner images, and the development of that story during the improvised. The essence -the mother- as the source and part of every step of the exercise itself is indeed what Kazuo called the origin of any dance, «my mother’s womb».
Should I mention what my today’s training was about?
(1)Text found in Spanish: «Kazuo Ohno, el último emperador de la danza» by Gustavo Collini Sartor. Collini doesn’t mention the source of that text.
Kazuo Ohno: «Antes de morir mi madre me dijo: ¡Dentro de mi cuerpo está nadando un lenguado! Varios años después de su muerte soñé con ella que, convertida en gusano, caminaba sobre mi mano. Sin querer le grité: ¡Mamá! Entonces me transmitió una gran idea sobre el Butoh.»
(2)»Selections from the Prose of Kazuo Ohno» by Noriko Maehata. The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 156-162.
Butoh is a mysterious, dark and difficult discipline, it is elusive and complex. Its borders are blurred, it emerged within the world of dance but it is very close to performance art and theater itself. Visually it seems identifiable due to the unique way their performers are used to make up their entire body in white, but that is not an imperative, a Butoh dancer can go naked and without makeup or masked and with huge and quirky costumes. It seems that most of his movements are slow and dense, but it is not an imperative either, the impulsiveness that they feed on leads to enormous variations in speed and quality of movement and energy. Butoh was created in the 1950s as part of the avant-garde movement around the world, it was initiated as a response to the enormous weight of tradition in Japanese performing arts and as a counterweight to the North American cultural invasion that caused the defeat of the second world war. Butoh emerged as part of a rebellious urban subculture in Tokyo, tackling scandalous issues. Today, 70 years later, the spectrum of their creative themes and goals has expanded in such a way that it has been dissolved inside the consumer society and inside neo-hippie, holistic and ritualistic movements; but a good part of its underground and anti-establishment vibe remains. It is no longer Japanese, it is created and re-created all over the world with the freedom contributed by different individuals from different cultures, and being anti-traditional, of course there is no tradition to follow.
When, at the end of 2020, Zhiren Xiao, a contemporary dance performer and director of his own experimental company in Guangzhou (ZET), asked me to work with his dancers – and himself – in a Butoh workshop and the creation of a Butoh show, I knew the difficulties I would face with that. The Butoh I perform belongs to the so-called «school of light» that was originated by Kazuo Ohno, co-creator of Butoh together with Tatsumi Hijikata (of the «school of darkness» in opposition to that of light). Even though these denominations are not academic, they speak a lot about their ways of approaching my view of Butoh. Kazuo Ohno developed as a dancer a deeply personal and inner style, impulsive, spiritual and with deep philosophical and religious sources, while Hijikata developed a more impersonal, physical and codified style linked to death, darkness, politics and rebellion. The «school of light» is rebellious in a much more philosophical sense, seeking the depth of the inner being of the dancer, avoiding the intrusion of the codified technique of any dance discipline. My personal vision of Butoh is deeply routed in my spiritual world, very individualistic, and almost against any dance technique by itself. How to approach then an introductory Butoh montage with a company linked to contemporary Chinese dance? That was my first big question.
«Digging» is the term I have come to, that symbolizes and brings together the experience that I have faced with these 7 dancers during these previous months: the creation of maps that little by little take us literally inside the body where we dig for the sources of our own creativity. That source that causes the flow of the unified movement, where mind and body are united since their origin. Exploring the territoriality of that body, finding points where it is decided to excavate and little by little going deeper and deeper within oneself were some of our explorations. Whoever is digging here does not do it to stay inside that hole that he or she has been created, they do it as a performers, in search of something -even if they don’t know what exactly is- and, no matter how small be the discovery, their desire is to bring it to light, exposing it, be it brute stones, sand, objects from the past, rough diamonds, memories or fuel sources that move our flesh and humanity. In the same way that we create a map to find the place of our excavation, in the same way we use that map to leave it and to return to the world. These maps of our excavation is our Butoh piece, it’s our way of dancing this time here in Guangzhou.
In this piece the performers share in their personal dances their experience during the workshops where I pushed them to face their own memories, their own ghosts and to find the way to expose it in free movement. That exploration inside their bodies, slowly has been creating a language in movement, a movement of the inner movement and, I insist, a very personal one. A story is told, yes, but not in ordinary ways, the starting and ending points are probably lost; there is no ending, no dramatic climax, no line of characters to follow. There is neither a symbology of the body or movement, nor an exhibition of performing skills. I know It will be difficult to observe if the spectator looks for something that he/she has seen before, if he/she forces himself to compare it with other works and have expectations of what a piece of dance should be. Let’s pretend that there are spectators who only want to understand everything and who will leave without understanding anything, but that there are also others who want to explore and are open to dig inside their bodies – like these dancers – from their own position as observers.
Let’s all together play the adventure and see what happens now on the stage.
I started to have plans to do this performance event since the start of 2020, when the design studio Triple Rooster had a different location in Dongshankou, Guangzhou. Maarten, the dutch designer who owns Triple Rooster, and I, waited till the end of the first Covid19 lockdown to rethink the event, but then it came that he lost the place as one of the economic victims of the measures to contain the epidemic. Now that he has a new location and has created with other artists Creative Commune we decided it was time to realize our first collaboration.
The Passing of Time is a work of Butoh that I started working in 2019. The main goal was the exploration of the inner sense of time worked with the Butoh technique of inner chain of images. In October 2019 I did a first collaboration with the bassoonist Michael Garza at Zhile Art Space in Guangzhou, a 50-minute Butoh performance mixing that exploration of time with another one based in my personal artistic interpretation of Ma Yuen’s series of paintings “Study of the properties of water”. This performance event at Creative Commune goes back to the initial point, the exploration of the inner sense of time through the Butoh technique.
Thanks to the special shape of the gallery I can choose a very special corner of the place: the narrow end of the main corridor which got a very nice visual perspective from the gallery’s entrance. At that place I’m going to work -from 11AM till 7PM (with pauses)- what I call The Inner Passing of Time, a live installation, the creative process of The Passing of Time, all through my Butoh technique of inner chain of images as the main impulse of movement.
I also can retake something that it was part of the initial project: a visual story telling of the process. Through photographs taken during the creative process of the day it will be also created a slideshow of images trying to tell the story of the resulted movements, but also showing a different version of experimenting the time I’m working with. Those resulted visual-stories should be screened in different moments of the day adding images till one last resulted as independent work at the end of the day.
Finally it comes a new version of the Butoh work created during the day, but condensed in a 30-minute show, this will be The Passing of Time, a Butoh work.
The public can come and go since the beginning of the event, watching, observing and exploring time with me as they like. At the end of the day (around 9 PM) we all can drink and chat about what it was experimented and watched.
Doing a conceptual work in Butoh is not new (I don’t pretend to do something new), but I’m interested in doing this exploration by myself and live and see the results.
I appreciate enormously that the guys of Creative Commune wanted to collaborate with me in this project.
肖全 (Xiao Quan) is a very well known Chinese photographer, famous for his portraits of artists of all kinds since the 1980s. Now he’s in a project photographing artists all over China. When he was coming to Guangzhou, 谧子 (Mizi) from Zhile Art Space, was asked to bring to a photo session with him people she considered worth a photoshoot, and she chose me among other six artists. I accepted without hesitation because I trust her a lot and she believes in my work, even though I didn’t know anything about who the photographer was.
With my bad comprehension of Chinese and our mixed English I didn’t understand I should be ready at 10 am for the shoot, mistakenly thinking I was supposed to arrive at 10. So, everything was already set for the photo session at 10 am and there I arrived like a stupid diva. Fortunately Mr Xiao Quan understood my mistake and he kindly waited for me to get ready. After almost half an hour (I had to apply make up to my whole body) I went up to the roof of the building where the shooting was taking place, which offered an interesting urban view of Guangzhou with its iconic tower (The Canton Tower) and a cloudy sky as a background.
When you don’t speak Chinese (mine is still really poor), people here just get along and many things happen without much explanation, and today that was the case. It seems that the original plan was to shoot just two or three photographs of each artist and then finish, but nobody had told me anything, so as I never pose for photographs but improvise instead, I started doing what I usually do and I improvised for almost 20 minutes. The amazing thing is they didn’t stop me, and I could even feel excitement for the shooting of my performance, with the assistants moving lights, cables and equipment around as I was moving on the space. That actually makes you feel very good, believe me.
When I finished the improvisation everybody was excited and happy, commenting and congratulating me in a very transparent way, and then Xiao Quan asked one of his assistants to take a photo with me doing some kind of Butoh together. After that, everybody else did the same. That was fun!
Once the photoshoot was over, I was invited to have a coffee with the team while they chose the best shots of the session, and they told me about their experience while watching me: Xiao Quan talked about photographing me like he knew everything about my persona, others talked about my dance like a «dance of the broken heart» because of its sadness, while others talked about the naturalness of my movement and also about the feeling of being in front of something primal or primitive.
What can I say? I’m very surprised, and of course pleased about what happened today. The paths of some artists cross and then something happens in that crossing, like today. I might never see Xiao Quan again, or maybe it will bring more opportunities, who knows? But this, like my Butoh-ka friend Esparta Martinez said once to me, was an opportunity to create that I could not refuse.
El viernes 30 de octubre de este 2020 fui a la villa de Qingyuan, al norte de la provincia de Guangdong, a danzar un poema de Octavio Paz, “La vida sencilla” (1949), dentro del festival de poesía Dahua al que me invitó un productora que ha estado creyendo en mi trabajo aquí en China. La poesía fue recitada por dos personas del consulado de México en Guangzhou: Tadeo Berjón , que leyó el poema en español, y Eva Chen, quien lo leyó en chino.
La vida sencilla es un poema hermoso por su simpleza y por su estilo, pero a la vez por su complejidad. Es un poema que no es fácil de asir; una serie de imágenes que se ligan a conceptos de vida durante acciones que nos parecen cotidianas. Uní la lectura en los dos idiomas y mi danza con una pieza de Wim Wertens, «Darpa» que con su canto agudo le dio una atmósfera de teatro del absurdo que impulsó a la creación de un personaje que ahora planeo desarrollar en el futuro.
Disfruté mucho el danzar escuchando la poesía, tanto en español como en chino, como si se tratara del discurso interno al que regularmente recurro durante mis performances de butoh. Ese discurso oído e internalizado me ayudó enormemente para que mi movimiento fluyera con una calidad de energía de la que pocas veces soy tan consciente.
La función de «La vida sencilla» se dio entre una lista enorme de participantes dentro del festival y ante un público de gente que estimo era cercana a los performers (poetas, músicos y bailarines) y que llenaba un enorme jardín donde se instaló el escenario. Lo curioso fue que en este tiempo de pandemia y el boom que se ha dado con las transmisiones en línea, se buscó transmitir en unas cinco plataformas que juntas, al momento de mi función, tuvo a casi un millón de personas conectadas. Es un auditorio que, si soy sincero, nunca pensé tener en mi vida.
Este evento también me dio la oportunidad de conocer a dos famosos poetas chinos, y en particular una poeta de la que estoy maravillado y dedicaré un post a mi encuentro con ella.
Por lo pronto las fotos de la función:
Soy, sigo siendo, afortunado.
Aquí el poema de Paz en español y en chino:
LA VIDA SENCILLA
Llamar al pan el pan y que aparezca sobre el mantel el pan de cada día; darle al sudor lo suyo y darle al sueño y al breve paraíso y al infierno y al cuerpo y al minuto lo que piden; reír como el mar ríe, el viento ríe, sin que la risa suene a vidrios rotos; beber y en la embriaguez asir la vida, bailar el baile sin perder el paso, tocar la mano de un desconocido en un día de piedra y agonía y que esa mano tenga la firmeza que no tuvo la mano del amigo; probar la soledad sin que el vinagre haga torcer mi boca, ni repita mis muecas el espejo, ni el silencio se erice con los dientes que rechinan: estas cuatro paredes —papel, yeso, alfombra rala y foco amarillento— no son aún el prometido infierno; que no me duela más aquel deseo, helado por el miedo, llaga fría, quemadura de labios no besados: el agua clara nunca se detiene y hay frutas que se caen de maduras; saber partir el pan y repartirlo, el pan de una verdad común a todos, verdad de pan que a todos nos sustenta, por cuya levadura soy un hombre, un semejante entre mis semejantes; pelear por la vida de los vivos, dar la vida a los vivos, a la vida, y enterrar a los muertos y olvidarlos como la tierra los olvida: en frutos… Y que a la hora de mi muerte logre morir como los hombres y me alcance el perdón y la vida perdurable del polvo, de los frutos, y del polvo.
Hace unos días, durante las presentaciones del festival de poesía Dahua en Qingyuan, me presentaron a la poeta Yu Xiuhua (余秀华). En el autobús que nos llevaba de Guangzhou a Qingyuan me llamó la atención ver a una mujer con problemas motores y de habla. Y fue en el almuerzo que Yu Xinqiao (俞心樵), uno de los consagrados poetas que habían sido invitados -y que afortunadamente hablaba un poco de inglés- me comentó que estábamos sentados en la misma mesa que Yu Xiuhua, de quien yo evidentemente no sabía nada. Me comentó (un tanto sarcástico) que ella era la estrella del evento y que no solo era famosa sino que era toda una celebridad. Ella se dio cuenta que hablábamos de su persona y me sonrió y la saludé. Le pedí a Yu Xinqiao que me escribiera sus nombres en chino (tanto el de él como el del ella) y después del almuerzo, me dediqué a buscar en internet sobre ellos dos.
Yu Xinqiao es también una celebridad, está bastante establecido en el medio chino, tiene varios libros, carrera académica y contratos de televisión y cine; su cara es muy curiosa, tiene un aire entre Diego Rivera y el de un sabio/santo chino de pintura tradicional.
La historia de Yu Xiuhua es diferente, es bastante nueva. Apenas surgió a la fama en 2014 y publicó por primera vez en 2017 (puedo estar errado con la fechas). Es una mujer de campo de la provincia de Henan, padece de parálisis cerebral y solo terminó la secundaria. Estaba casada por contrato entre familias (ahora divorciada), escribía un blog de poesía desde principios 2002 y en 2014 fue descubierta por un editor que leyó un poema suyo que estaba haciendo escándalo en las redes sociales chinas, “Cruzando más de la mitad de China para dormir contigo”.
Aquí un extracto:
“En toda China, todo está sucediendo:
volcanes en erupción, ríos que se secan,
prisioneros y exiliados son abandonados,
alces y grullas de corona roja bajo fuego.
Me enfrento a una lluvia de balas para ir a dormir contigo.
Comprimo innumerables noches oscuras en un amanecer para dormir contigo«.
Cuando leía estas líneas y otros de sus poemas quedé maravillado, atraído por su simpleza, su sinceridad de palabra, pero también por su sensualidad, por su nivel físico tan pleno. Dejé de buscar por el trabajo del otro poeta y me dediqué solo a leer sobre ella.
Nos encontramos nuevamente durante la función, y unos números antes que yo, le tocó subir a la escena a dar una palabras y recitar uno de sus poemas. La sensación de ver su cuerpo de pie, en continuo desequilibrio y movimiento y la dificultad que tenía al hablar diciendo su poesía, me llevaron de inmediato a la experiencia que he tenido viendo otros artistas de teatro con habilidades especiales: ese bailarín de DV8 que solo bailaba usando los brazos y el torso, la muchacha que padecía de una enfermedad que le provocaba tener músculos delgadísimos que vi haciendo Butoh en la ciudad de México, la bailarina butohka japonesa que no podía mover sus piernas y solo podía moverse a través de uno de sus brazos… todos ellos me habían llevado a la esencia de la danza y el movimiento, y precisamente ahora, viendo a Yu Xiuhua, con parálisis cerebral, de pie en el escenario y recitando su poema, me llevaba a reconocer lo que creo es la esencia del sonido y el sentido poético en acción.
Después de mi presentación, pasé por donde estaba ella, sentada, sola, y me felicitó, yo -por supuesto- hice lo mismo y, gracias a que estaba Eva Chen, la empleada del consulado que leyó el poema de Octavio Paz en chino, pude expresarle que estaba muy impresionado tanto por su trabajo como por su presentación. Fue un juego de apreciaciones mutuas, sin duda. Eva resultó ser una lectora de los poemas de Yu Xiuhua y estaba posiblemente más emocionada que ninguno de nosotros. Al final nos tomamos una foto para recordar el momento, y esa foto es la que publico aquí.
No pude profundizar sobre nada en aquella muy corta conversación, y eso me dejó inquieto. En los últimos días he seguido leyendo sus poemas, muy pocos están traducidos al español, así que tuve que leerlos los más en inglés ( mi chino sigue siendo muy malo como para leer poesía). He notado que el mundo fuera de China habla de ella, que está siendo internacional debido a su fuerza como artista poseedora de un cuerpo en circunstancias especiales, como mujer en lucha (se divorció de su esposo para ser libre, siendo un matrimonio entre familias, tuvo que comprarle una casa con el monto de las regalías del primer año de ventas de sus libros de poesía), y evidentemente se le reconoce por a ser una gran poeta. En China se le quiere mucho pero su fama ha atraído la atención del establishment y ya recibe críticas por su falta de patriotismo y su falta de positivismo sobre el papel de los pobres de su región saliendo adelante gracias al desarrollo económico chino; algunos la acusan de querer renovar sin tener calidad académica. A mí sus imágenes, llenas de acción concreta y verbos carnalizados me mueven mucho, habiéndola visto frente a mí en el festival puedo percibir lo personal que son sus escritos, lo relacionados que están con su vida y con su cuerpo en esta China de grandes cambios tan cruel como lo peor del mundo capitalista. Quiero danzar sus poemas.
Yo siempre busco algo que me impulse a danzar y creo que lo he encontrado en su obra. Si se da, ya les estaré contando cómo se sucedió todo.
Aquí pueden encontrar más información y textos sobre Yu Xiuhua:
(This is part of a personal Blog I wrote during my first visit to learn Butoh in Japan in Spring 2011. After the passing of master Yoshito Ohno in January 2020, I decided to repost all testimonials I’ve written about his teachings and work to keep his memory and his teachings alive).
If last April I had traveled to Yokohama with fears of exposure to nuclear radiation from Fukushima plant, why not face Montreal’s cold autumn this time? Master Yoshito Ohno had told me he’d come to Canada in November this year to perform “In Between” with Lucie Gregoire, a French Canadian contemporary dancer, as part of a trilogy they both have been creating since 2007. My experience in Yokohama had been crucial in my artistic path, so I did not hesitate at any point in going to see the show and if possible take a few more sessions, and so I went.
Two days before his performance, Yoshito Ohno’d gave an open Butoh class for students at LADMMI, L’École de Danse Contemporaine. It would be a class for students, yes, but some interested outsiders were admitted.
LADMMI is part of an art schools complex very close to the Place des Arts de Montreal, but independent from it, in one of the main shopping streets, Sainte Catherine. The building, in a forties style, has been remodeled to host art and dance schools and work spaces for everything having to do with bodywork and design; LADMMI is on the third floor and you can take a look from the street itself while some of the classes are happening.
The wait was long, since I had to be there early to make sure I was included among those coming from outside (in the end, we were only three outsiders). So that gave me time to wander around Sainte Catherine, observe some classes at the dance school and eventually discover the difference between my view of Butoh and that of a school of contemporary dance. Obviously, for the dance school, Butoh is a complement to the training of its dancers and, possibly, a way to develop a style in dance. For me, right now, Butoh is a performing art in itself.
Yoshito Ohno arrived with his wife, a translator, Lucie Grégoire and the school principal; we were waiting for him, among a huge mass of students with different levels of training. Lucie apparently had transmitted some knowledge of Butoh to her groups at the school, but not all of those students had had contact with Ohno’s discipline.
Master Ohno, obviously, didn’t remember who I was. He finally did it when I mentioned April, that I was Mexican and that I had taken his workshop in Yokohama. These are the curiosities of certain re-encounters, which I enjoy a lot.
I guessed Master Ohno would repeat most of his common exercises: the flower, the prayer, working with silk, etc. But the presence of dance students made me think I’d experience a kind of pedagogy of Butoh I did not know till that moment, a Butoh introductory class; and that was what he did.
It was an interesting class as a reminder of the rules of this art form in the way Yoshito Ohno sees Butoh, and also an example of teaching people these basics without having previous contact with Butoh.
The first thing Ohno (with help from the French translator) said was that we should understand the Japanese characters of man, heaven and earth, to identify our body as in the middle of two forces. He emphasized the image of a line passing through the center of the body to the crown and pulling us up, while the feet were “roots” that pull towards the earth. The chin pointing down and our gaze forward. With that posture, we were to walk. “Amazing Grace” was the first piece of music we worked with in this class.
He made a special comment about the hands; he spoke of the strength of the hands and fingers to remain together, with minimal separation. Then he took the idea of how those hands, that position, the chin down and the line between heaven and earth, were a hell to reach a presence on stage, a link between opposing forces.
We made several physical exercises as if pulling something and feeling the force, and then returning to the position and perceiving this new presence in us. This set of physical tensions initially left in us energy moving within us, and when standing, doing nothing, our body energy was charged without movement, what we call presence on stage.
In a case he had brought to the studio, master Ohno had flowers for all, a lot of scented, artificial flowers. Then he spoke of the flower as the best example of what is standing between heaven and earth, in complete union. He asked us to move with the flowers. At some point he talked about being the flower, but did not elaborate on it. And we moved along with the music towards our flowers.
He asked us to carry the flower as if we were wind, and at the sound of our steps he asked us not to make noise, even when walking quickly, giving an example by doing it himself, saying there was no need to disturb the viewer’s attention from our objective; our steps then followed the flower in the wind.
He told us how, early in his career, asked his father, Kazuo Ohno, to teach him to dance, and he replied giving him a flower and saying, “look, you don’t have to learn to dance, just seek to be a flower. Move with the flower. Do this every day; one day you will feel that you are that flower and will not need to have it in your hand any more.”
Similarly, he took out from his case several small pieces of silk and gave them to us; each of us began to work with the idea of the strength and softness of silk, the strength and softness of our body. Moving from one state to another depending on the piece of silk we were stretching in our hands. That was our body and our interior; when strong, before stretching, as an adult, it was tense; as it stretched, it became soft, like a child asking for his mother.
As we were working on the technical aspects of the performance, he took from his bag Hokusai’s painting “The Wave”. And he tried to explain the idea emanated from the painting: the artist, who has a different view of things, can see far away and can see up close, like an insect. We had to represent that in order to move, we had to find different views of our work. There was a technical search, but we had to feel the technical work too.
The piece of cloth
He gave each of us a piece of cloth, and we began to squeeze at the same time that our bodies squeezed, twisting with the piece of cloth. It was tension by stress, and the feeling of the texture of the fabric was to guide us in our squeezing movement, we had to work those points as the source of our movement and whatever came of it.
He made short mention of his theory of “forte pianissimo”, where the most complicated thing for the butokah is not to exploit but to maintain the strength of a possible explosion within while moving gently or slowly.
Squeezing the fabric was his way of addressing the “forte pianissimo” idea while moving.
Then he showed us the image of the wooden sculpture of the Buddha of Nara. He showed the same photo he had in his studio in Yokohama as part of a calendar. Master Ohno made us note the sculpture’s hands, hands that are never fully attached but are together within a separation the width of a sheet of paper.
He then offered us each a sheet of tissue paper and talked about the meeting of these hands together but separated, the same for our knees, and our arms in contact with the torso.
We practiced with that tissue paper for a while, but then he interrupted our work and asked us to add a pray to our movement; without further explanation besides saying that it wasn’t a religious thing, but a personal prayer, internal.
The music played for the final movement was the «Ave Maria» by Schubert, which his father always used in training and was the background music of one of his most famous pieces on the scene dedicated to his mother.
At that moment, the time allotted for our class had run out and had to stop. Without saying more, Yoshito Ohno thanked us, saying that all the objects we worked with that day were a gift and we could keep them and should use them daily in our training; then he said goodbye. We all applauded to him, we were at a dance school and this is the way dance students are used to thank to their teachers.
Although Yokohama left me a profound and enlightening experience about Butoh, about its origins and technique, with this short open class in Montreal I discovered (or confirmed), from my point of view, the basis of the pedagogy of Yoshito Ohno for Butoh.
Now I also had something really tangible, physical, to support my daily training, a support as simple as an artificial flower, a piece of silk, a cloth and a small tissue. They will remind me, while working every day with them as physical objects, every of Yoshito’s words, and those meaningful objects will be witnesses of my own development.
The performance Yoshito Ohno gave in Montreal together with Lucie Grégoire, “In Between”, will be part of another post.
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