A Requiem for Ohno Kazuo 大野一雄のための鎮魂歌

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

–William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

Some artists become art itself. Their very physical presence and how they conduct themselves becomes an act, a statement. Warhol was much more than what he painted. Bob Dylan did more than simply sing his era; he defined it. Mifune made of acting, acting. And in dance, where the dance and the dancer merge in the best of them, Ohno Kazuo (1906—2010) established himself as a Butoh performer par excellence.

In our last issue, on the Lyrical Partings page, we featured several pictures of a wispy, aging Ohno accompanied by Taylor Mignon’s poem in honor of him. Ohno is gesturing, almost as if speaking, to some ethereal light, just beyond our frame of vision. We never dreamed that that lyrical parting would be a final one. Ohno Kazuo passed away in Yokohama on June 1st, several weeks after its publication, at the age of 103.

Ohno gave greater depth and complexity not only to Butoh, but also to beauty. He started his dance career rather late in his life and by the time he rose to prominence, he was already old (relatively speaking), flabby, wrinkled, frazzle-haired, some might even say ugly and grotesque. Very late in his life, after a back injury bound him to a wheelchair, he would still crawl across the stage or gesture, like some gnarled creature crushed by gravity but still persevering against the impossible. Ohno was an onnagata, too, and his performances of old women swaying and tottering on the stage did not exactly reflect traditional ideas of feminine grace. The roots of Butoh are furthermore dark, and while notions of ‘dark beauty’ are not so unusual, the genre seems like a particularly challenging place to depict beauty. Nevertheless, Ohno was nothing less than beautiful in his art.

Through his dance, Ohno Kazuo also amplified the anxieties and memories of an age. Ohno’s style of dance was originally coined Ankoku Butoh (Dance of Complete Darkness) by its founder, and one of Ohno’s teachers, Hijikata Tatsumi. Developed after World War II, this dance movement typically involves delicately controlled movement, grotesque imagery and the absurd. Dancers may often give physical form to objects. Musical accompaniment is common. In “Mother,” for example, Ohno performs around a shamisen player. The genre’s intimations of darkness seem reasonable enough given when it started. Ohno had plenty of troubling memories to draw from, including the devastation and poverty of post-war Japan, and the many years he served in the Japanese army during the war. The story of his life, from athlete to POW to world-renowned artist, seems as unlikely and chaotic as the dance itself, but a few individuals appear to have provided a guiding presence along the way.

Ohno was born in Hokkaido and attended what is now known as the Nippon Sports Science University, where he excelled in athletics. When the rector of his dormitory took him to the Imperial Theater to watch the Spanish Dancer Antonia Merce perform “La Argentina,” Ohno perhaps began formulating a vision of himself for the future. After graduation in 1929, he worked for a time as a physical education instructor at Kanto Gakuin High School in Yokohama. In 1934, he saw a performance by Harold Kreutzberg, a student of German Expressionist choreographer Mary Wigman, and shortly thereafter began his formal training with two modern Japanese dance innovators, Ishii Baku and Eguchi Takaya. The latter had traveled to Germany to study briefly under Wigman, whose influence, some claim, is evident in Ohno’s work. His development, however, took an abrupt—and long—pause.

Ohno Kazuo was drafted by the imperial army in 1938 and went to the war front, first in China and then to New Guinea. Although Butoh frequently treats taboo topics, very little is written about Ohno Kazuo’s experiences during the war. He was hardly sheltered from the violence and aftermath, though. When he was finally able to return to Japan, some 9 years later (one year spent as a POW), he saw jellyfish in the sea where soldier returnees who died on board from hunger and disease were given an ocean burial. In an early recital in the 1950s, he performed a jellyfish dance with those vivid images in mind.

Following his return, he immediately restarted his dance studies and returned to teaching at Soshin Girls School in Yokohama. In 1949, he and Ando Mitsuko, another student of Eguchi’s, held a joint performance in Tokyo—Ohno’s first, at the age of 43. Hijikata Tatsumi was in the crowd but didn’t start working professionally with Ohno until about a decade later. Through an introduction from Ando, with whom Hijikata had started working, Ohno did apparently meet him some time in the early 1950s.

The collaborative effort with Hijikata was a turning point for him artistically and professionally. Some of their early works included a rendition of Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, again reaffirming the sea as a motif in his work, and a two-part version of Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors), by novelist Mishima Yukio. And while the two were successful partners in developing Butoh (by that time, officially named), Ohno had begun to craft his own unique style. By the mid 1960s, Ohno’s own son, Yoshito, had begun performing with the troupe as well.

In 1969, Ohno appeared in a movie by Nagano Chiaki called “A Portrait of Mr. O.” This was to be the first of numerous art-film pieces Ohno appeared in until his last in 2005. Despite his growing fame as an artist, Ohno never forgot his roots. In 1977, he premiered “Admiring La Argentina,” in homage to his original inspiration, and won the Dance Critics’ Circle Award that year. The work became a popular touring piece. By the 1980s, Ohno had become a prolific public performer, with tours and festivals around the world.

With Hijikata Tatsumi’s death in 1986, Ohno and his son continued to spread the art worldwide through a growing number of lectures and workshops, in addition to their rigorous performance schedule. Despite his growing age, Ohno gave performances throughout the 1990s and began collecting award after award for his life-long devotion to Butoh. By 2001, Ohno could no longer walk, though he performed until as late as 2007 in Japan. Some might view these late performances as overly grotesque, maybe even pathetic, but the dance and the dancer had fused long ago, and as long as Ohno Kazuo was on stage, it was art.

Throughout the many decades of Ohno’s career, the ranks of Butoh dancers grew exponentially, many of them his own pupils. In 1949, he launched the Ohno Kazuo Dance Studio, and in 1961 opened a large studio hall in Hodogaya, Yokohama called the Kamihoshikawa Studio. Ohno’s son Yoshito helped train new generations of dancers for much of the time, and has been the acting director of the studio for years. He has indicated that he will extend his father’s legacy through the auspices of that school and his own role as a teacher.





舞踏を通じて彼は老人が抱える不安、思い出といったものを強調して表現した。彼の舞踏スタイルは舞踊家・土方巽らによって「暗黒舞踏」と名付けられたものがルーツになっており、デリケートな動き、グロテスクで倒錯したイメージが特徴である。音楽を伴うことも多く、代表作のひとつ 「わたしのお母さん」では三味線の伴奏が付いた。暗黒舞踏が「暗さ」を強調したことには理由がある。大野自身の従軍体験、そして戦後の日本の荒廃と貧困の記憶。それらが暗黒舞踏のアイデアの元になっている。戦前、体育教師としてキャリアをスタートさせ、戦時中は捕虜となり、復員後舞踏家としてのキャリアを重ね世界的に有名になった大野の人生は、彼が演じた舞踏のイメージと同じく波乱に満ちたものだったが、数人の人物が大野の人生に影響を与えたといわれる。








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