(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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
(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).
Butoh is young, very young; it was born in the fifties of the 20th century and it specifically recognizes a single founder, Tatsumi Hijikata. Hijikata discovered in Kazuo Ohno a partner for his Butoh revolution. Kazuo sensei then becomes for many the co-founder of the new dance and, according to others, its counterpart as well: while Hijikata worked what was grotesque, dark, tense and destructive, Kazuo worked what was bright, soft, loving. Through them both Butoh takes on an unusual expansion and its influence will cover hundreds of artists of all fields around the world.
The first thing master Yoshito Ohno did, after we introduced each other, was to show me a book with photographs by William Klein, ‘Tokyo’, with images of Kazuo Ohno, Tatsumi Hijikata and Yoshito Ohno doing a “happening” in Shimbashi area in 1960. It was like telling me that he was part of the big moment in Butoh (and indeed he was part of it; a kind of presentation of himself as someone to be trusted).
Yoshito Ohno has always been there; from the beginning he has been an observer and a total practitioner of the Butoh revolution in Japanese art, of its development and its changes: as a 19 year old teenager he took part in the first recognized Butoh performance “Kinjiki” with Tatsumi Hijkata as a dance partner, and from that on he continued participating in several performances choreographed by Hijikata; he learned from his father how to dance; he saw Hijikata die and accompanied his father in every performance during his last 30 years. Being part of its own mythology, Yoshito Ohno transmits Butoh through the example of the creators in the same place in which Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata worked for years, where Kazuo Ohno left his own legacy. He is part of that legacy.
Any instruction to follow in the workshop of master Yoshito Ohno has as a benchmark either of the two founders of Butoh, some of their movements, some of their anecdotes, some of their speeches, some of the comments by others on their work: if you’re going to move your hands, master Ohno talks about Hijikata’s hands when he was on stage, about how they seemed to emanate energy from the fingers and palms; if it had to do with the feet, he speaks of how Hijikata had such strength in his feet that, the day he died, at midnight, a sparrow came and stood on them for a moment; if you’re going to work with the gaze, he talks about how Kazuo avoided the gaze directed toward the ground while he moved along the floor or how he seduced theater technicians with movement and gaze exercises that earned him the respect of those who did not know who he was. If someone had talked about the creation of a surreal body in Kazuo (and that’s what a Japanese critic called it), that served us to search for our own surreality and create it in our body. In the beginning, in Yoshito Ohno’s teachings, there are always the founders of Butoh.
They then, the creating teachers, are our starting point and inspiration. To them we also offer our work.
And before every offering, we should pray, we should learn how to pray for our selves in movement.
Never before, until the first day of work with master Yoshito Ohno, had I heard of the idea of praying on stage, in a way so simple, and without implying any religion. Several Western teachers had told me about a sacred workspace, but they seemed clumsy attempts to sanctify something that was totally alien to us.
The first step is, always, to pray.
Yoshito Ohno explained to us that Butoh dance was born out of the memories in Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno of the terrible tragedies of the Second World War, their hatred and their pain; he talked about how Kazuo had suffered in his journey back to Japan from the Philippines, of how he had seen people die on the boat, and that he prayed with them, with those images, and that he also offered them his movement. Then he would ask: what’s in your prayer? about what do you pray? for whom do you pray? And that way we began to move.
Every day the starting working sentence was “pray”(inoru “祈る”), then he would go where there the sound system was and began playing records, two, three, four pieces: Schubert’s Ave Maria (which Kazuo so appreciated), Il mio babbino caro (by Maria Callas), Amazing Grace, or pieces of Buddhist music. And then we prayed, day by day, and each session, and in its repetition new possibilities for prayer were in us: I prayed for those dead who Kazuo saw, for my own dead ones, I prayed for the image of a dying Kazuo, for the feet of Hijikata’s corpse, I prayed for my own past … and I moved, like the others who were there and who also prayed and moved.
From that praying came the offering, our movement as an offering: the story of that offering by Kazuo for all those dead people was profoundly powerful, just as the one in which he dedicated his dances to his mother, to the great love he felt for her, where his prayer turned into the sensation of an umbilical cord on stage which was in reality a huge womb.
That offering was a petition, a petition to our strength, to the workspace, contact with it, all our senses on it, with all four corners, four sides, the ground, the sky.
Our movement shouldn’t be external, prayer and the offering should be internal:
“Nobody knows how you must pray and offer yourself, only you, find your prayer, find your way of offering by moving.”
It is an ongoing exploration.
That was more than a month ago and today, back home, I still do that, exploring; every day I wake up to move and pray with the momentum of those searching sessions in Yokohama … Why? I can not say for sure why, I just think I simply need it now.
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 email@example.com.
I know – if you are not like me – it could be tiring to do this, but the action of making sense of the past throughout a continual revision is, for me, of the same importance as planning the future. So, I’m doing this.
After a 2018 full of attempts and a few successes (The Year I Left Behind), the year that’s just ended was full of creative work and presentations, full of achievements.
I received a photograph, taken in the nineties in Mexico City when I was working in “Escenología”, a performing arts research institute and publishing house directed by researcher Edgar Ceballos, where my dreams of being part of a theatre company that provided the group atmosphere and creativity inspired by Jerzy Grotowski’s and the Odin Teatret’s work were almost realized. What I did achieve during those years was a very powerful and deep technical and ethical education coming from many sources linked to Grotowski and The Odin Teatret (we worked with Eugenio Barba, Julia Varley and Roberta Carrieri, just to name a few), but especially our principal and main training coach, Jaime Soriano, himself a direct disciple and collaborator with Grotowski. The contact with the different researchers Edgar Ceballos was meeting and publishing (in books and magazines) gave me, of course, a performing arts culture I was dreaming to have. Watching these photos pushed me to address the problems of working in Guangzhou; this energy and impulse came directly from the source, no doubt about it.
These are two different photographs, both with the same spirit I was talking before: one, a general photo taken when Teatro Potlach came to Escenología to have a look at our work and give us some feedback; the second one, taken during the rehearsal of a piece we never premiered. Of course, the photos are cropped a bit so you can see me better.
I was expecting this moment since 2014. I had saved enough money (Japan is super expensive) for the flight, accommodation, food and fees. I was close to Tokyo (Guangzhou is less than 4 hours away by plane). I really needed to see master Yoshito Ohno and dance with him again at the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio. And I wanted to get in touch again with all the other masters that are working in Tokyo: the great Natsu Nakajima, Yuri and Seisaku (there I had the opportunity to meet and train with Yumiko Yushioka), and Kudo Taketeru. I had the chance to have a basic workshop with Takao Kawaguchi about his experience with “About Kazuo Ohno”, and a surprisingly interesting class with two colleagues from Yoshito’s workshops, Mutsumi and Neiro.
My goal was to have a total immersion in the current Japanese Butoh world, and you bet I did. I took lessons almost every day (sometimes two different classes in different parts of the city or between two cities in one day) from the end of January till the beginning of March. I went to see dozens of performances, listening to conferences and talks, homages, exhibitions, and I even paid two visits to the Hijikata Butoh Institute at Keiko University where researcher Takashi Morishita gave me all the facilities to feel in that place like in my own personal library. One day, on my way to the Hijikata Institute, I passed by an area of old bookshops, where I found a good edition of the book “Ba-ra-kei: Ordeal by Roses” by photographer Eiko Hosoe, with images of Yukio Mishima – both very important figures for Butoh in Japan.
My last day I interviewed Master Yoshito Ohno about his work life and his ideas of an uncertain future after his heart attack, which partially paralyzed his body.
At the moment I was writing this year’s revision I learned that – exactly one year after this visit to Japan – master Yoshito Ohno, the dancer who with Tatsumi Hijikata gave the first Butoh performance in history, son of the great Kazuo Ohno, has passed away. I am sad and I have a terrible feeling of being lost. I know that, little by little I will only feel thankful for all that I learned by listening to him and dancing with him. My thoughts and love are with his wife, his daughter Keiko and all the Ohno family, as well as with my colleagues, friends and people close to the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio.
My life in Japan literally nourished on Butoh.
Of course, I cannot show here my whole experience in Japan, but these photographs will help me share part of it. Also, there are many other posts in this blog about my experiences during that trip:
March came with a surprise trip to Mongolia. I probably don’t have much to say about me and Butoh during this trip, but there was a lot about this culture I’ve always been interested in, especially its throat singing and the shamanism of the north of the country. Both (throat singing and shamanism) are very much the source of performing arts as a biological body in performance
The highlight of that trip was a shamanistic ritual on frozen Khövsgöl Lake. You can read about my whole experience in the post I dedicated to it. (link)
In Ulaanbaatar I went to listen to throat singing at a very tourist-oriented performance. Nevertheless, the technique was there and it was spectacular. I was also lucky that, during a camel festival in the south, in the village of Bulgam Sum, in the Gobi desert, I got to listen to some villagers singing some improvised traditional chants in an ankle bones match. You can listen to part of the chanting by following this link: https://soundcloud.com/gustavo-thomas-teatro/canto-y-juego-gobi-mongolia-2019
While I was preparing two Butoh pieces and one photography exhibition for June, I went to see one of China’s iconic natural marvels, staying at Jima village, near the city of Yangshuo in the the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. There I did two interesting improvisations with incredible natural settings as background. Sunsets those days were spectacular, so I timed one of those improvisations to happen as the sun set. I can say it was magical, because it really was.
In May I devoted myself to the creative process of the performances and the photo exhibition, and also added the task of transcribing the recorded interview I did to master Yoshito Ohno and then translating it to Spanish. While doing some research on Yoshito Ohno, I found some other interviews and materials of his autobiography that helped me understand the important role this man has played in the creation and promotion of Butoh since the very beginning. I started posting some of those findings as quotations and commentaries on my own personal experience of training at his side.
The Mexican Consulate made good on its promise and offered me its events hall once more to show the second phase of my photo-performance project “Pride, Chinese Style”, which this time I called “Qipao, A Gender Game”. Like the year before, my collaboration took place during the LGTBQ Film Festival different consulates in Guangzhou organize. My performance and the photography exhibition were in fact the opening to one of the film screenings. This second phase gave me the opportunity to work again with Wing (Ho Hoiwing, en mandarín He Hairong, 河海荣), this time as male model wearing a qipao, stepping up from documentary photography to a stage concept: what’s the fuzz when a man wears a women’s iconic dress? The results were pretty good, I think, and the reaction of the people who attended was fantastic.
The photo-gallery shows first the photographs I showed at the exhibition, and then the photos of the performance at the consulate.
As you probably already know, LGTBQ public activities are prohibited in China. That’s why it was only possible to show my project “Pride Chinese Style” inside of a foreign consulate in Guangzhou. I was advised that it was possible to present my exhibition and performance outside the consulates if I announce it as a private event without an open public publicity or ticket sale. So, I did it. This second presentation of Qipao, A Gender Game was at Jueyuan 1985, a beautiful 1920s brick house in the historical neighborhood of Dongshankou. The performance was a little different from the first show at the Mexican Consulate, Wing and Atta (my model and the one of the dancer directors of the Tango house) participated mixing their Tango with my Butoh. I was lucky that a good photographer was there to take these beautiful documents of that night.
Invited by Jasmine, an enthusiastic Chinese woman who owns a few independent venues in Guangzhou, to do a performance at her Café Theatre “Zhile” (知乐), I started my new project (at that moment, I was envisioning one called “Study of the Properties of Water”). I worked on my own and also had some meetings with Michael Garza, a friend and United States bassoonist who plays for the Guangzhou Symphonic Orchestra. I had to put a brief pause on that work to make a trip to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to an area close to the borders with Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and home to one of the most culturally vigorous – yet politically conflicted – Muslim minorities in China, the Uyghurs. The region is known also for its amazing natural beauties. On my way from Tashkorgan to Kashgar, near the lake Bulungkul, I did a short improvised performance with a background of amazing icy blue waters and enormous white sand dunes and snow-capped mountains.
Michael Garza and me decided to apply ourselves to the creative process during all of September and up to our presentation, after the National Day holidays. I decided to fuse together two projects, “Study of the Properties of Water” and “The Passing of Time”, and this was the long final name of the work. Michael worked on 10 very powerful pieces for bassoon, some classics, some by contemporary Asian composers, while I worked on my inner story with inspiration coming from paintings of different states of water by Chinese Sung dynasty painter Ma Yuan and the idea/impulse of time passing inside my body.
Here you have some documents about that intense creative process.
“Study of the Properties of Water and the Passing of Time” was performed at Zhile Art Space in Ersha Island, Guangzhou. Our 50 minute-long bassoon and Butoh performance was done before a full house and with what I can say great success. The attention and response of the public was deep and emotional, and the Q&A session afterwards passionate. I totally loved the experience.
The photographs were taken by several of the spectators present.
At long last! “Languid Bodies”, my Butoh and Video piece created in Mexico City in 2014 together with video artist Omar Ramírez. With one failed attempt in 2018 (when the show was cancelled by the police an hour before the performance due to a misperception of its content), in November 2019 I presented it at the Mexican Consulate as part of the commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination Violence against Women. Undoubtedly, no context would have been more ideal for this kind of piece.
The events hall of the Mexican Consulate is not a theatre in a proper sense, but I managed to transform it into a very basic stage, with some unavoidable visibility problems. The public was a mix of foreigners and Chinese. It made me happy that the video created by Omar, even though projected in a small format, made a very strong impression in the public and was well appreciated and even put at the same level of relevance as the Butoh piece itself. I’m personally very fond of this work and I felt more than blessed by the response to it here in China.
After an invitation by Jasmine, the manager at Zhile Art Space, to participate at the Guangzhou Outdoor Arts Festival (lucky me!), I created “Masks”, a 50-minute Butoh and physical theatre performance. The GOA Festival 2019 attracted hundreds of spectators every day during all December, and the day of my presentation was no exception. I was afraid to face the monster, but that was no monster, it was a beautiful creature, attentive and open to be touched.
The night after the performance I wrote:
“Deeply satisfied with Masks’ presentation yesterday night at the GOA festival in Guangzhou. A very special outdoor setting, I would say spectacular. A huge audience (something like 400 people), attentive and with great response to my work. It was broadcast online throughout China on two different channels and, from what I know about just one of those channels, more than 4000 people were watching the performance.“
Also, there was even a Korean artist among the public that drew what she saw during the performance.
I’m so grateful to Jasmine, my favourite Chinese producer, and to AG, the director of the GOA Festival, who believed in my work. I feel I’m a very lucky person.“
And the festival article reviewing the performance was very kind to me:
“Mexican Butoh artist Gustavo Thomas, who currently resides in Guangzhou, presented the piece “Masks”, created by him specifically for GOA. The artist’s mysterious and strong cross-cultural performance firmly held the attention of those present, from children to adults. His piece received enthusiastic applause.“
The year ahead is – as is usual in my life – unpredictable, but I’m feeling that I’m learning (and starting to use what I’ve learned) to work in a very unpredictable surrounding. I have at least three projects in the making and some collaborations with other artists.
“Como constantemente pongo todo lo que tengo en mis performances, cada aspecto de mi existencia, incluso mi vida familiar se absorbe en el proceso creativo. Es algo inevitable y simplemente no puedo decir que no cuando algún miembro de la familia expresa se deseo de inmiscuirse completamente en el proceso. Al aceptar esas ofertas la cuestión es entonces cómo encontrar puntos en común dados nuestras diferencias en gustos sea en música u otros aspectos. Nunca ha sido nada excepcional el que mi esposa esté envuelta en el cuidado de mi vestuario y otras cosas de mi trabajo. Ella será siempre la primer persona que consultaría sobre qué usar en escena. Lo mismo aplica para otros miembros de la familia: cuando ellos rechazan algo simplemente es así como debe de ser.
Si pudiéramos hacer una distinción entre lo imaginario y lo real, entonces el trabajo escénico se construye sobre el imaginario. Sin embargo, sin estar familiarizados con los entresijos de la existencia diaria, no podemos crear un mundo imaginario. Crear algo de sustancia implica una gran cantidad de atención a los detalles de nuestra vida cotidiana y a la reflexión sobre nuestros encuentros diarios con el mundo real. Este proceso me implica examinar el significado no solo de mi forma particular de hacer Butoh sino también de lo que el Butoh en general significa en mi vida. Lo que está en el centro de mis actuaciones está inevitablemente vinculado a mi existencia diaria.”
(Yoshito Ohno, “Butoh: Un camino de vida”. Yokohama, Japón. 2015.)
La primera ocasión que fui al estudio de Kazuo Ohno descubrí que el estudio estaba dentro de la propiedad en donde la familia Ohno vive. Ahí había vivido Kazuo Ohno con su esposa y familia, y ahí ahora vive Yoshito Ohno con su esposa, quien guarda una respetuosa distancia siempre que están los estudiantes. A ella fue quien vi por primera vez cuando llegué la primera noche a tomar el ansiado taller en el estudio. Estaba en la cocina y de inmediato llamó al maestro Yoshito, él me saludó y me dijo que pasara al estudio. Unos años después en Montreal (yo vivía en Canadá en ese tiempo) fui a tomar una clase con Yoshito Ohno y ella tras él llevaba una enorme maleta con flores, seda, algodón y otros aditamentos que el maestro regularmente usa en sus talleres; recuerdo haber notado que cuidadosamente acomodaba todo los materiales para que estuvieras listos y a la mano cuando Yoshito los necesitara; días más tarde también salió de los camerinos detrás de él después de la función que dio en el Atélier de la Danse.
Su hija, Keiko Ohno, está cerca de todo aquello que hace su padre en el estudio, talleres y archivo; lleva una especie de diario de cada sesión del taller y en cada presentación u homenaje, al menos en Japón, está presente.
Aún cuando Yoshito Ohno está solo en el escenario, su trabajo sobre la escena es un asunto de familia, sin duda.
El Butoh entre los Ohno, desde la presencia de Kazuo, el padre, ha sido un asunto de familia, como si hubiera sido una tradición heredada. Kazuo Ohno lo inició alimentándolo con los recuerdos de su madre y acercando a los vivos mismos a su producción. Sin duda el centro de las danzas de Yoshito Ohno está inevitablemente vinculado a la existencia diaria que tiene con los vivos y muertos que lo rodean.
(Estos textos son parte de un proyecto de traducción y análisis personal para acercar al mundo de habla española la filosofía y la vida de Yoshito Ohno, quien ha formado parte del Butoh desde su origen y a quien considero mi maestro)
“Durante los años de guerra cuando estábamos viviendo en Katsuura, mi abuela me hacía acompañarla al templo todos los días. Había muchos templos y capillas en las cercanías, y ella se comprometía a sí misma a ir a cada uno de esos templos, aún a la iglesia local. Insistía en decir que los lugares de culto eran indispensables. Cada vez que entraba a uno de esos templos se la pasaba orando mientras que yo andaba por ahí jugando. Mi abuelo y mi abuela era devotos creyentes de Jodo Shinshu (budismo de la tierra pura). Cuando preguntaba a mi abuela: -“¿por qué rezas tanto tiempo?”, su respuesta era: -”Rezo por todos, así que aunque cuando tuviera todo el tiempo del mundo no sería suficiente”. Sí, ella se pasaba tanto tiempo orando porque debía hacerlo por y para todos. Se sentaba ahí por horas a rezar, aún cuando íbamos de regreso a casa. Estaba continuamente inmersa en la oración a lo largo de toda su vida.
A mis diez años fui a Yokohama siguiendo a mi padre (Kazuo Ohno) a su regreso de Nueva Guinea después de su liberación del campo de prisioneros. La casa donde vivíamos estaba en el subterráneo de la Mission School, la escuela cristiana en la que mi padre enseñaba. Como había una iglesia en la escuela también los domingos me mandaban ahí. Mis años de secundaria y preparatoria los pasé en la Mission School. Como mis padres eran cristianos, mi hermano mayor fue bautizado sin demora. Sin embargo, siendo educado en tan religiosa atmósfera, yo no fui nunca bautizado. Yo estaba cercano al budismo debido a las visitas de mi abuela a todos los templos y capillas. Habiendo siendo testigo de su gran fervor religioso me fue difícil alejarme de las creencias del budismo que estaban ya enraizadas dentro de mí. Aún así no soy devoto de ninguna religión como tal.
En años recientes estudiantes de todo el mundo vienen al estudio buscando aprender más sobre el Butoh; así que tenemos estudiantes de lugares tan alejados como India y China, y de variadas creencias religiosas: musulmanes, hindúes, budistas y cristianos. Así que siempre hago una sugerencia durante las sesiones de los talleres: -“¿por qué no oramos mientras danzamos?”. Creo que “orar” es significativo en esta idea de orar por la felicidad de los demás y que es algo que todos tenemos en común, más allá de nuestras creencias religiosas individuales.”
(Yoshito Ohno, “Butoh: Un camino de vida”. Yokohama, Japón. 2015.)
¿Por qué no orar mientras danzamos?Yoshito Ohno: “Durante los años de guerra cuando estábamos viviendo en Katsuura, mi abuela me hacía acompañarla al templo todos los días. Había muchos templos y capillas en las cercanías, y ella se comprometía a sí misma a ir a cada uno de esos templos, aún a la iglesia local. Insistía en decir que los lugares de culto eran indispensables. Cada vez que entraba a uno de esos templos se la pasaba orando mientras que yo andaba por ahí jugando. Mi abuelo y mi abuela era devotos creyentes de Jodo Shinshu (budismo de la tierra pura). Cuando preguntaba a mi abuela: -“¿por qué rezas tanto tiempo?”, su respuesta era: -”Rezo por todos, así que aunque cuando tuviera todo el tiempo del mundo no sería suficiente”. Sí, ella se pasaba tanto tiempo orando porque debía hacerlo por y para todos. Se sentaba ahí por horas a rezar, aún cuando íbamos de regreso a casa. Estaba continuamente inmersa en la oración a lo largo de toda su vida.A mis diez años fui a Yokohama siguiendo a mi padre (Kazuo Ohno) a su regreso de Nueva Guinea después de su liberación del campo de prisioneros. La casa donde vivíamos estaba en el subterráneo de la Mission School, la escuela cristiana en la que mi padre enseñaba. Como había una iglesia en la escuela también los domingos me mandaban ahí. Mis años de secundaria y preparatoria los pasé en la Mission School. Como mis padres eran cristianos, mi hermano mayor fue bautizado sin demora. Sin embargo, siendo educado en tan religiosa atmósfera, yo no fui nunca bautizado. Yo estaba cercano al budismo debido a las visitas de mi abuela a todos los templos y capillas. Habiendo siendo testigo de su gran fervor religioso me fue difícil alejarme de las creencias del budismo que estaban ya enraizadas dentro de mí. Aún así no soy devoto de ninguna religión como tal.En años recientes estudiantes de todo el mundo vienen al estudio buscando aprender más sobre el Butoh; así que tenemos estudiantes de lugares tan alejados como India y China, y de variadas creencias religiosas: musulmanes, hindúes, budistas y cristianos. Así que siempre hago una sugerencia durante las sesiones de los talleres: -“¿por qué no oramos mientras danzamos?”. Creo que “orar” es significativo en esta idea de orar por la felicidad de los demás y que es algo que todos tenemos en común, más allá de nuestras creencias religiosas individuales.”(Yoshito Ohno, “Butoh: Un camino de vida”. Yokohama, Japón. 2015.)￼
En la bitácora de unas de mis primeras sesiones (mayo de 2011) en el estudio de Kazuo Ohno en Yokohama, escribí:
“Ellos entonces, los maestros creadores, son nuestro punto de partida y nuestra inspiración. A ellos también ofrecemos nuestro trabajo.
Y antes de toda ofrenda, aprendemos a orar.
Nunca antes, hasta el primer día de trabajo con el maestro Yoshito Ohno, había escuchado la idea de orar en escena, de una manera tan simple, y sin implicar ninguna religión. Varios maestros occidentales me habían hablado de un espacio sagrado de trabajo, pero parecían burdos intentos de sacralizar algo que nos era ajeno totalmente.
Cuando mi primer ejercicio con el maestro Ohno fue simplemente orar, algo nuevo apareció: en su manera de decirlo (tuve la enorme suerte de que se me tradujera en tiempo real durante esa sesión), en sus tonos, en su mirada, la indicación era diferente; habría que dar el primer paso orando, el primer ejercicio, es decir, el primer movimiento, la primera improvisación de movimiento.
El primer paso es, siempre, orar.
Yoshito Ohno nos explicaba que la danza Butoh nació del recuerdo en Hijikata y Kazuo Ohno de las terribles tragedias de la segunda guerra mundial, de su odio y de su dolor; hablaba de cómo Kazuo había sufrido en su travesía de regreso de Filipinas a Japón, de cómo había visto morir a la gente dentro de su barco, y que con ellos rezaba, con esas imágenes, y que también a ellos les ofrecía su movimiento. Entonces preguntaba ¿qué hay en tu rezo?, ¿sobre qué rezas tú?, ¿por quién rezas tú? Así comenzábamos a movernos.
Cada día la frase inicial de trabajo era “oren” (en inglés para mí, “pray”, y en japonés para los otros, inoru 祈る)… Entonces iba hacia donde estaba el sistema de sonido y comenzaba a poner discos, dos, tres, cuatro piezas: el Ave María de Schubert (tan apreciado por Kazuo), Il mio babbino caro (por María Callas), Amazing Grace, o piezas de música budista. Y entonces orábamos, día a día, y cada sesión, y en su repetición nuevas posibilidades de oración estaban en nosotros: oré por aquellos muertos que vió Kazuo, por lo míos propios, oré por la imagen de un Kazuo moribundo, por los pies del cadaver de Hijikata, oré por mi propio pasado… y me moví, como los otros que estaban ahí que también oraban y se movían.
De esa oración surgió la ofrenda, nuestro movimiento como una ofrenda: la historia de esa ofrenda de Kazuo por todos esos muertos era profundamente poderosa, de la misma manera aquella en la que dedicaba sus bailes a su madre, al gran cariño que sentía por ella, donde su rezo se convertía en la sensación de un cordón umbilical sobre la escena que era en realidad una enorme matriz.
Esa ofrenda era una petición, petición a nuestras fuerzas, petición al espacio, contacto con él, todos nuestros sentidos en él, con las cuatro esquinas, los cuatro lados, con el suelo, con el cielo.
Nuestro movimiento no debía ser externo, el rezo y la ofrenda debían ser internas: “Nadie sabe cómo debes tú rezar y ofrecerte, sólo tú, encuentra tu rezo, encuentra tu camino de ofrecimiento moviéndote”. Es una continua exploración.”
Since I met Mutsumi and Neiro at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio six years ago, in 2013, I’ve been following their professional career through social networks. I saw their first works together, how they independized from Yoshito Ohno, their tours outside Japan, and how they stablished their own studio. I’ve been interested because when we met in 2013 they showed to me a very different approach to Butoh than others colleagues at the studio, a kind of compromise beyond the enjoyment of free dance.
So, when I was planning this current study trip to Japan I wanted to meet them again, watch them performing and visit their studio, and so far I’ve done everything.
Going to Hirai is relatively easy but far from where I am staying, it is in the other extreme of Tokyo, between a big open river and an industrial zone. They live close to their studio (like Kazuo before and Yoshito Ohno now). Their studio is a tiny but lovely and cozy place, an adapted storage house, full of what I call “perceptible Butoh energy”: the floor, the windows, the books, the photos of the masters, costumes, things.
I was lucky to be the only student; they were not going to give a workshop this week because of personal problems, but I told them that I was leaving Japan soon and they kindly offered me to do the workshop only for me.
We did three exercises and one improvisation:
-Standing still, feeling the space.
-Walking with a simple movement of arms while feeling the edges of our skin.
-Walking with a glass full of water.
-A 20-minute free improvisation.
Depicted like this it seems very simple and, if you are familiar with Yoshito Ohno’s workshops, all the exercises recall you what many have worked at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio.
What made them different and, in some way, special for me this time, was something I also felt when I saw their performance two weeks ago: congruency and deep exploration. Each exercise at Mutsumi and Neiro workshop has to be explored in a very deep and compromised way, like their own work on stage. Slowliness here is not a technical exigence, but a result of the compromise they ask you to have while doing the exploration. It is not just doing it, but putting everything you have and being completely in it. The total exigence in Kazuo Ohno’s work. Neiro even mentioned a Japanese word for this, nantokashite.
I didn’t expect that their workshop was going to be the hardest I would experience during this trip in Japan -and I’ve taken many, believe me- but it was. I think we found the reason during our talk while dining (delicious Mutsumis’s cooking) after: nantokashite. I was expecting the relaxed way Yoshito Ohno works his workshops, just making the proposition and let it go on free dancing without judgment or with minimal observations. Instead Mutsumi and Neiro work with Yoshito’s wisdom and with Kazuo’s exigence; they put me in line within my own compromise with Butoh, with my own body, and my own work with just some direct sentences. I have to admit it, that was hard.
Simple, deep, serious like their own performance.
Yes, the homemade dinner Mutsumi cooked after was delicious, the talk a little bit more and the dessert was saying good bye with a memorable selfie.
Walking to the train station over the enormous river I saw the moon, the same moon we used to dance every session at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio with Yoshito Ohno. Now the moon and its reflection is also in Hirai, I’m probably carrying a little bit of it on me.
I didn’t come to Japan to take Butoh intensive workshops, but to experience the common ground of studying and practicing Butoh with the masters at their places in their common routines. I’m committed to accept the way they teach and share their experiences, and then I’ll go back to my own work, and no more.
Until now Yoshito Ohno’s workshop has been one of those places where I experienced more inner fights with my Western idea of how a workshop should be and how a teacher should teach. First, going twice a week to Kamihoshikawa from where I’m staying in Tokyo is exhausting; I make two hour travel to go and two going back from door to door. Exhausting probably is also the word to describe the unique style of Yoshito Ohno’s Butoh workshop these days: every time he repeats almost the same propositions to improvise, every time with the same words and choose of music, or at least you feel that way till the moment you start to spot the differences, and when some new proposition comes it is like breathing an air of freshness and novelty.
It wasn’t always that way. I remember my first two times coming to study Butoh with him, he had a quite a varied list of propositions to improvise and he used to be a very long time speecher, but these days he only uses a little group of propositions with minimum speech.
This is the main structure (all accompanied by music, always the same song for every proposition):
-standing still, we are a work of art;
-meeting the space, the place where Kazuo Ohno created his dances;
-looking for a long range space, dancing in contact with places long afar.
-creating a silent night for the children of the war;
-feeling the blessing and suffering of the Virgin Mary;
-the Japanese characters for body and the body like bamboo;
-four Japanese characters for emotions;
-holding hands together the whole group with Moonlight Sonata and then dancing individually.
This has been almost the same structure since I came in mid January, but some changes happened:
-he could insist in keeping the same proposition for two or three songs;
-regularly on Tuesday nights a colleague musician plays the guitar and sings while we dance;
-sometimes Yoshito feels the need to dance with us and he does do it;
-and also sometimes, like today, he proposes other improvisations: feeling the tissue and with it the space between our hands; being a flower holding a rose; or using a piece of silk like if the silk texture was our body.
Today, for instance, he shared more about the impact Kazuo Ohno had in Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons, and we danced with the piece of silk during three songs from the album the musician dedicated to Ohno. And we finished dancing with the tissue. Those were remarkable changes indeed!
After the workshop -he always stays seated near where the CDs are- I approached him and told him I wanted to see what more music he had there, I was curious of course; then I saw an album of Edith Piaf and I expressed my excitement about watching that album there. He asked me to give him the CD, what I did, and asked his assistant to put the music on. After two minutes he was already at the center of the studio wearing a lady’s hat and danced La Vie en Rose. Moving around slowly and sometimes losing his balance Yoshito performed mostly with his left hand and his head, with his eyes. Our old master was inspired today.
Finally, during the tea time, I showed everyone some photos of a lovely Sakura in blossom I stumbled upon at Ueno park, and Yoshito told (in Japanese) to Michiyuki Kato, a dear colleague whos fidelity to the workshop is absolute since many years ago, that at the house garden there was a tree in blossom and he could take me to watch it. It was an Ume tree, a Plum, blossoming ahead of season to and in front of what used to be the last Kazuo Ohno’s bedroom.
What I’m trying to share, personal experience aside, is that there is some sensitivity that comes when we are open to feel it. Accepting what the workshop is these days, be because Yoshito’s old age or illness, be because it is what it is now, those small changes make a great difference between sessions. It is a training, of course, my training. You know, after some years of working at any field, that not every day can be a new day, but repetition with some changes, with some details, will be the common daily experience. The eyes and ears of our body must be open to those small changes. It is a question of some quotidian deep personal introspection and care.
That’s when we are rewarded by those simple but remarkable details, not by big new worlds, but by small pieces of land coming from the path of patience.
When I wrote my email to reserve my place for this event I received a reply saying that this was not going to be a proper performance, but only “a gig”. Then at his worksop Kudo told me that it was going to be something simple, just a 15 minute improvisation.
As I’d never seen him performing live before I didn’t care, I’d already made my mind to assist, and also because I know when a butohka says that it’s going to be a short improvisation it’s always a false statement, it never happens that way.
This was an improvised performance with two musicians playing what I call concrete music (but it could be only contemporary music; sorry for my ignorance), with chords and percussions, and Kudo Taketeru as a dancer.
At the beginning I felt that Kudo was listening and reacting to the sounds, looking for a way to follow the difficult noise; he was acting in some way, so I was watching a person on stage, not even a transformed actor.
When he was a person little happened to me, even I had the impression that he was trying to be humorous unsuccessfully, curiously avoiding theatrically. Then after some 15 minutes (maybe more) of heating actions and repetitions he took off his clothes. It is when everything changed in front of us.
We saw a naked body now (just wearing a tiny thong), no more a person; he was a body, only a body. I don’t remember have seen that transformation since Ko Murobushi performances in the 1990s, with the difference that Ko was less theatrical, more primitive probably.
The moment we saw Kudo’s body naked he became movement, impulsive physical -improvised- actions; jumpings, falls, tremors, knocks on the walls, lashes on the walls, hits on the wall, we forgot the person to put all our attention in the moving body. Sometimes in the heat of the improvisation of that body the actor appeared again but this time using his masterful theatrical skills (if I can make it like that) becoming for instants a demon, an animal, a monster, a theatrical physical image, then erased the actor to be again only that body in those impulsive actions.
Kudo’s body is a spectacle when moving on stage too, because of how he moves, yes, but mostly for how it looks: big and heavy bonnes and developed muscles with almost no fat, skin with no hair, strong legs, strong gluteals, thin but muscular torso, long black hair, a big mouth, big hands (with long fingers), strong feet, so particular eyes that seems to have strabismus. He was sweating profusely and used that sweat on his improvisation like an expansion of his body, like a costume.
The music, as I said before, was difficult, improvised and interesting but complex, free but with some monotony coming directly from its style; never a melody, never sentimental feeling; there was no melodrama here, no sentimentalism, no way for a deep musical introspection, only flux of sound, running energy, noisy jumps and stops with a half of second of silence and then noise again. Kudo worked all the time listening to the music, with fluidity too, but sometimes with only external pace of movement. In one moment I felt the music started to follow him.
He was the king on that stage by that time.
There were climax, two or three perhaps. I remember one especially powerful because Kudo didn’t let it go away. That’s when the body he had become transformed itself in a demon, not a ghost because never was airy, it was a body becoming a demon of flesh.
Yes, we had to wait for this moment for quite a long in terms of performance time, watching the person, the actor going in many ways, trying many forms, but it was worth the wait.
(Atelier Dai Q Geijutsu, Tokyo. Thursday February 14th, 2019)
This is a very particular workshop, based in the way Takao Kawaguchi worked his last conceptual dance, “About Kazuo Ohno”. Takao compiled a series of original videos of Kazuo Ohno’s famous performances and made the commitment to copy -or imitate- every one of the movements in those performances, putting aside the idea that many of these works were mostly improvised precisely in what he was going to imitate, the physical movement. “In one moment I can perhaps get the soul of his work, because this is a work of the soul”, said Kawaguchi.
I cannot say much about “About Kazuo Ohno” because I’ve only seen some parts of it in videos online; many have said that didn’t like it though, others that he is actually moving like and resembling Kazuo Ohno but without being moved by the work like Kazuo used to touch the public. Now, about the concept of possibly getting the soul of Ohno’s work through copying his movement -as expected as a follower of Kazuo Ohno’s path I am- I was not convinced at all. Well, I was partially wrong: it is actually a very interesting approach to be, in some way, directly influenced by Ohno’s work.
The structure of the workshop (only 4 hours, one day) was very basic from my point of view; after some warming up exercises and words of introduction Takao made us physically explore some of the activities he did to approach the copy of the work of Kazuo Ohno:
-watch 5 short original recording videos of his performances (from Admiring La Argentina, My Mother, and The Death Sea);
-make a 10 seconds Imitation/inspiration/mockery of Kazuo’s style;
-taking only one video from My Mother (the moment with the flower), try to imitate his movements;
-with that same video, chosing only three still moments, imitate perfectly Ohno’s body (for this Takao showed us some of his drawings of every movement he did during the process of About Kazuo Ohno), like sculpting with our body the pose of Kazuo’s during his performance;
-Finally link those body sculptures with movement like if we were moving frame by frame in a recorded video giving them fluidity. Showing the result (in groups) to the others.
Since my time as student of the Grotowski training and the principles of Theatre Anthropology I’ve been very familiar with this kind of approach to the work, not actually imitating directly from videos of the masters, but working in sculpting the body and getting the movement in physical actions with a minutious detail from words, paintings, sculptures or memories. So, the work immediately made some sense to me, and also because in one moment I started to feel obviously not that Kazuo was feeling, but something unique that provoked this imitation: “the water running by the pipes of the fountain”, like Eugenio Barba said.
If the initial goal of getting the soul of Kazuo’s work is putting aside and you take this approach as a training to follow the possible path of the movement of the master I think it could work much better for anyone, like the traditional way to teach performing arts in Asia, through direct imitation from the master; here the master is dead, but we have recordings regarded now not as documents but as an intrinsic part of the creative live work of the master. But obviously that’s my point of view.
Takao Kawaguchi is kind and serious, not complicated in getting us to do exactly what he wanted, in reality guiding our exploration. Of course he was not trying to convince anyone that this is the only way to get the soul of Kazuo Ohno’s work, this is only his way of sharing his own exploration to do it. I liked his honesty.
To be true I probably would never have taken this workshop (in fact Kawaguchi gave it when I was in staying in Mexico some years ago and I was not interested in taking it), but destiny brought it to me during this training stay in Japan at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, and I let my curiosity go this time. I must say that it has been a quite interesting experience.
At the end of the workshop we saw a whole 1977 original recording of Admiring La Argentina.
I went to see “Dance in February” by Mutsumi & Neiro, two dear colleagues I met at Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio almost six years ago during my second travel to study Butoh in Japan.
The work is simple in its structure, two choreographies (if we want to call them like that) or solo parts, “Ginbasha” and “Neiro Superlight” linked by only one powerful thing, the humanity of the characters/performers. I chose the word ‘humanity’ because most Butoh techniques today try precisely to erase the humanity of the body looking for a primitive nature of it or as many say “killing it”.
This was also not an improvised work but most of it was as fresh as it was improvised, alive as it was the first time they were doing those movements on the stage. But freshness, even as a possible quality of the work, was not the essential thing here. What it was striking for me, touching in many senses, was that they were two worlds doing things, yes, two worlds walking, cleaning, seating, jumping, dancing, watching; two profound microcosmos living on stage, moving their bodies like simple people but in such complexity that only they as performers could do it. And if that was remarkable they didn’t look like they were dancing.
He, dressed with a shirt with no sleeves, white underwear and a clownesque tocado on the head; his skin painted in white and his face lightly remind us a circus performer. She, dressed with many layers of clothes, a wig and a delicate hat with almost no make up, ending with only one brilliant blue leotard.
It was obvious that this was not a normal choreography of Butoh or even a theatrical story, but a piece of two characters. Yes, the presence of the performers was as profound as if they were two well constructed characters. So, in one moment I thought, -this is absurd, there are doing almost nothing but showing us what they are, this is like Theatre of the Absurd. What I’m watching is like a piece written by Beckett with Beckettian characters, with all the absurdity that means watching two human beings alive completely elaborated by the passing of time and the weight of the world over them-.
Watching Neiro and Mutsumi performing their Butoh was watching the masks, the alive costumes of two human beings, who are not capable of changing anything but just living those layers of life. It was sweet, painful, deep, absurd again, and touching but never moved us to tears. Each one of them had soul on stage and that soul moved us around their deep works.
Here we don’t see any kind of parafernalia of the body, anything but sutil transformation, like -comparisons aside- Kazuo Ohno performing his mother or La Argentina. If there were skills showing in this “technique” that Mutsumi and Neiro used it those were from inner nature, from the soul; they were acrobats of the soul.
I’m happy to have seen this particular Butoh performance, because they are a good reason to understand that the other path in Butoh is alive, that path coming from Kazuo Ohno’s work and that it is full of humanity and artistic endeavour.