(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
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.
Coming from Tokyo to Kamihoshikawa in a weekday is stressing, especially when you don’t know the way trains work in Japan. I spend almost two hours to get to the studio and it is super tiring, mainly because I get anxious about missing my train in one of the three transfers I have to do. This time, luckily, I was there on time.
Yoshito looked less tired and with more energy than last Sunday, and he was ready to demonstrate that to all of us.
The workshop developed almost in the same way than last Sunday with some variations in the order of improvisations: standing still, recognizing the space, looking afar and close like an insect, exploring the five Japanese characters for emotions, dancing without waking up the sleeping baby and living the life and suffering of the Virgin Mary. Today though, he added the exercise with the tissue: feeling the tissue between our hands, exploring the space it provokes between them and dancing with the feeling of its texture. Usually it is a piece of music what we improvise, but this time after the first song ended he asked us to keep dancing for another song and another more, then something more interesting happened: while we were dancing, a colleague student left the group, took a guitar and started to play and sing in Japanese, a very powerful singing and lovely music; we just kept dancing of course. In the middle of the song Yoshito started to dance with us.
It is a very special feeling when your old Butoh teacher dances with you. You don’t stop dancing but you’re totally aware of what he is doing, you give space for his dancing, enjoy his movements close to you, and also, more important, you uses this energy he has in that moment and dance with him.
In one moment I recalled watching him dancing with his father. His dance was powerful but totally aware that the main dancer there was Kazuo and not him. He was almost still but dancing, because he knew in that moment his place on stage. For me watching him dancing with his father is always a lesson of humility in our profession. I believe I was experiencing something similar tonight; I was learning in practice with him and from him.
(There is a video of the experience. If I can get it I’ll added to the post)
We finished the workshop again improvising another dance in group holding hands with the idea of the full moon with The Moon Sonata by Beethoven as a background.
During the tea time after the workshop I bought one of his books, one about him: Portrait of Ōno Yoshito by Yomota Inuhiko, and he signed to me. He made the effort of signing with his left hand because the right one is in recovery of an injury. Keiko his daughter told me that the money of the sales of that book is actually a donation for the archive they’re managing now at the studio.
Going back home I spent more than two hours on the trains because of the evening time (the workshop and tea moment ended at 10 PM). I was home after midnight, super tired but smiling and satisfied, with my new book in my hands and the feeling in my body that today I danced with the old Master.
Yoshito Ohno sensei gives some words as introduction, concepts and anecdotes around the history of Butoh, all as inspiration, as impulse, some accompanied by illustrations too (photos, paintings, Japanese characters,…). Then, with one or two pieces of music, we dance freely.
Probably Yoshito Ohno’s Butoh workshop is the most singular you can find in Japan. Many could be lost there, many like me could just feel enormous joy.
The work is physical but it is not based in physical exercises. It is philosophical, based in personal experiences and complete freedom.
You stand still during a whole piece of music, look like an insect while walking with an eye in your back; you are also the full moon with all the group, reach the farest lands with your movement, and walk on the same path that Kazuo Ohno did; you suffer like the Virgin Mary and transform your body in the body of a naturally strong bamboo.
There is no judgment, no pressure, like if art wasn’t there, but it is, for sure, all the time.
¿Quality? He talks about quality in reference only to Tatsumi Hijikata or to Kazuo Ohno, not about our work.
Freedom and its philosophy open doors and windows inside each one of us during those improvised dances and almost everyone cry once.
After four years without being there, I found an older man, an older teacher, with some problems to walk and speak, but doing what he has to do, guiding us through the wisdom he got with Butoh.
Kazuo Ohno, the divine, is still there at the studio, but that place today, I felt, it has already become Yoshito’s own place. It is the studio of Yoshito Ohno sensei, the master.