“If you feel that the flower is beautiful, then you are beautiful.” -Learning Butoh with Yoshito Ohno-

Being a flower. Yoshito Ohno studio. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011.)

(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).

Yoshito tells us that Hijikata used to say: “Your body possesses everything within, you just have to find it” and he would add that the way in which Kazuo Ohno and Hijikata did that was through Butoh.  Moving every day, each moment of their lives, every moment of doubt, of inspiration, of relaxation, of crisis; moving every moment of discipline and work, of dreaming, of pain, of remembrance.  And it’s true, that attitude is completely logical:  else, how could we find the all within our bodies if we don’t immerse ourselves totally in it, rummaging in every detail of our unknown interior?

The search is done initially by walking, and the slow pace would seem a premise.  In our slow walking we discover that the experience is risky too:  if our body contains all, then, besides life and prayer and love, it also contains death itself and its ghosts, that which others suffer and others ask themselves, violence and grudges, fears and anguish, mental labyrinths and hells… everything.

In those games of the logic of being congruent with our Butoh, Yoshito adds other words from Hijikata:  “the dead body always walks risking life.”

Nothing in the studio of master Ohno is compulsory; a proposal for movement is not an order, nobody is forced to search for their hates, their fears or their violence; everything is simple, soft; something is commented, something is told, something is proposed, and then we must move.  The risk appears because it finds you when you move, like a sunlight or a mother that cradles her baby. 

So, while moving in that search of the all within, I could write at the end of my second session:  “I’ve just arrived from my work with Yoshito Ohno.  Today, dancing, I was a three-day flower, a blossoming peach tree that died in the wind, a prayer, and a child’s heart.”

Our body contains everything and can transform itself into anything.  The proposal was always “be”, “you are…”

“If you feel that the flower is beautiful, then you are beautiful” would tell us Kazuo Ohno through the voice of his son,  Yoshito.

Tens of photos, both of Kazuo Ohno and of Tatsumi Hijikata, show them “being” that which they imagined while moving.  I remember them and learn too.

Kazuo Ohno, a pond. Book cover of Hidden Body, The World of Kazuo Ohno.
Hijikata being earth. Photo by Eikoh Hosoe. (book Kamaitachi)

And in that studio, for various sessions, we were dozens of flowers, under different circumstances and conditions; we were silk, and with it we learned the softness and strength of our bodies, by being the characteristics of silk, by touching silk, we discovered in movement the characteristics of our bodies; and we were bamboo too, and with bamboo in our hands, we explored the strength of our exterior and the emptiness of our interior, the hollowness of our physicality.

Stretch your inner self like the silk. Yoshito Ohno studio. (Photo by Gustavo Thomas. Yokohama, 2011)

We were all if we found it in movement.  There are no fixed structures but each session some patterns repeated themselves:  Yoshito talks, shows, demonstrates, exposes, asks us to move based on that, we always do it with music, after some 5 minutes he stops, continues talking about the same subject or changes to a new one.  And so for two hours every session.  At the end, some tea and snacks while we talked about the petty details of life.

How happy I was because I was never judged on whether I really was the flower, silk, bamboo, the sea or the wave!  That’s right, I was never judged, nor were the others: we were invited to be and to move while being, and just that.

Looking at pictures of Rodin’s sculptures we learnt that he, like Butoh, was revolutionary because they didn’t imitate the movement of the body, but were simply the body that was expressed in itself, it was a kiss or a hug or a pride.  We learnt that impressionist painters, like Butoh, were revolutionary because they offered life from other angles, and that those impressionists got their inspiration to discover those angles from Hokusai and, in particular, his piece “The Wave.”

And then we moved being water, being the sea, being waves, being the force of gravity, the moon itself, and the wave again.  We were, in the line of the water (and not always in the same session), the feminine and the moon; we danced to a piece by Chopin, we remembered the mother, the bosom of the mother; we lived the night and retook the sea.

With a piece of cloth we discovered the intensity of our interior:  by stretching it or squeezing it the intensity was bigger; by relaxing its stretching our interior diminished its intensity.  We played with emotions without knowing which ones they were; it was my mind that associated to some, to my past, to my inventions, to my hidden desires, it responded to what the cloth itself was, my body in contact with the force applied to that piece of cloth. 

Training Butoh at Yoshito Ohno’s Workshop. (By Gustavo Thomas. Yokohama, 2011)

Yoshito tells us about the “remnants of emotion”, that which remains after squeezing the cloth of our emotions, that which remains and weighs and drags within.  While he commented he moved, his walking was slow, tense, heavy.  He talked about the difficulty of expressing those remnants on stage, of the so called “forte pianissimo” and he also moved with great intensity but in an extremely soft way: – “forte pianissimo” – he repeated while moving, and invited us to try.  “This is a challenge to face, every day” – he would explain.  Kazuo Ohno was a master of that “forte pianissimo”.

In the line of emotions we made them body and voice:  on a single occasion (and explaining that he did it specially because I was an actor), he asked me to say a sentence on the heaviness of life, in my language, and to say it while walking.  We were all charged with the search for the forte pianissimo.  Then he asked one of the participants to climb on my back and let his weigh drop on me; I was supposed to continue repeating the sentence during all my walking. That night we didn’t talk more.

I felt the flower was beautiful, then I was beautiful…

Yes, that night we didn’t talk more; but some other days we sang…

(Texts, photographs and videos in this Blog are all author’s property, except when marked. All rights reserved by Gustavo Thomas. If you have any interest in using any text, photograph or video from this Blog, for commercial use or not, please contact Gustavo Thomas at gustavothomastheatre@gmail.com)

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