(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.
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