A secret: The entire universe is in the space between your hands. -Learning Butoh with Yoshito Ohno-

(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 Ohno drinking tea at his studio after his workshop session. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011)

As you pray (while we pray in motion) gather your hands .-
And the hands lead us, thinking about what we are praying, seeing it, dancing.
Yoshito stops and, approaching us, says: – A secret!
He takes the page of a large photo book and shows it to us:
Nara, a beautiful city, a very old and important Japanese city. There are many Buddhas there but one of them is special; this Buddha is special, look…-
Then he brings the photo of the Buddha closer to us…

What’s special about it?

Cover of Buddha of Nara Photo Book showing us “the space between the hands” at Yoshito Ohno studio. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011)

Look at his hands … They don’t come together; there is a minimal separation in between, barely a rice-paper fits in between them.  There is not another one like it in all Nara. That makes it very special. Everything is compressed between his hands; it is powerful. Kazuo Ohno knew that; it is a secret … 
He looks at us, smiling and thoughtful, at each and every one of us around …
Pray with your hands together and feel a separation the width of rice-paper.

The space between our hands contains the whole universe…

And our hands worked with that separation, and we moved with Maria Callas and Anthony singing in the background. In later sessions we used a handkerchief. That separation could be not only in our hands, but between our knees, as a young and caring woman, and you could also feel that paper between the arms and trunk, between the feet and the ground as the walk of a Japanese Noh master.

Yoshito Ohno shows all while speaking: he is the Buddha of Nara, he is the beautiful and shy teen who walks with a minimal separation between her knees, he is Kazuo Ohno when he performed a woman and his arms barely touched the flanks of his trunk and he is also a walker on rice paper.  He continually separates from us and takes a few steps with his hands almost joined together and raising them to heaven. He doesn’t pretend to be a role model, it is just that he must inevitably move as he speaks.

Yoshito Ohno and part of the group dancing with the rice-paper between their hands. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011)

Yes, his sessions are full of little and big secrets about Butoh, on how to achieve the inner strength of our movement:

Pay attention to your back, as if it spoke;– a direct encounter with the whole of the space, with its corners, the front, the back, the up and down; thanking the space…

Know where to land your gaze while walking; if you look down you always seems sad, it is better to look neutrally forward, openly.

We “move” every secret, we explore every secret, we practice, without further instructions, without judgement.

The examples to reveal the secrets each are given, as always happens in his workshop, with the remembrance of passages from the two great masters of Butoh, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, but also with simple drawings: geometric patterns to discover the different displacements of our body in space, or Chinese characters (Japanese writing originated in, and retains the use of, Chinese characters) on the body, on man, on day. He talks while drawing, he shows us each drawing he makes, he lets us touch it and review it.

The showing of a palpable example when mentioning every secret functions as an inspiration pivot, as a guide beyond than words or formal instructing; at the end every secret comes to us through an internal image that is created from listening to him, seeing him move, looking at a picture or touching an object. We did it, as I’ll talk about in the next post, touching flowers, touching silk, touching bamboo, touching plastic balls…

Zen circle image at Yoshito Ohno studio. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011)

That painting, so simple, known as the “Zen circle” is one of the biggest inspirations for the discovery of the body in motion as a circle, as a whole, as philosophy on scene. Yoshito tells us that his father was also a philosopher and that he philosophized on stage through Butoh, and that one of the inspirations for philosophizing while moving was that image of the circle drawn by a Zen monk, a circle that clearly doesn’t close but which we know includes everything. Kazuo Ohno was not Buddhist but he was a sensitive, religious man, wherever he found inspiration he stopped and moved.

That circle is explored everywhere, be it in the space, be it inside and outside the body, be it with our hands. The hands that emanate from the circle itself, those hands that he tells as waterfalls of force surging from Hijikata. Hands are the holders of the circle that is a sphere, the moon. Yoshito asks us to look at the moon, to feel the moon and see it as a manifestation of that zen circle, and the sphere. Our hands can touch the moon, take it, split it into two, move with it, with its strength, with its attraction, with its poetry.

Moving with the spheres on each hand. (Yokohama, Japan. Gustavo Thomas © 2011)

Several sessions with a number of spheres; inner images that move us, and that make us philosophize without thinking, while moving … How can one philosophize without thinking? I never asked myself that question while working … Perhaps there was also another secret.

Those secrets and that philosophizing cause a change in others, teacher Yoshito Ohno tells us. For years people around the world came to the workshop of his father, they listened to him speak, watched him move, moved with him and then something happened, they changed, their life changed. Kazuo Ohno had the force to change others through their own secrets unveiled at each session (secrets that no one could decipher or explain), explored through the philosophical or poetic or surreal movement of Butoh. 

After a few sessions, those visitors changed the paths of their creativity and, in many cases, their very lives.

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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