Kazuo Ohno (l) and his son Yoshito perform at Japan Society in 1999. (c) William Irwin.
A shining light from Japan's "dance of darkness" took to the sky this week: Kazuo Ohno passed away at age 103 in Yokohama, Japan.
"It is extremely sad news for the dance community--not only in Japan and America but across all five continents," said Yoko Shioya, who oversees Japan Society's Performing Arts Program. "Although formally trained in Western modern dance, Kazuo Ohno, together with the late Tatsumi Hijikata, pioneered Butoh--Japan’s inimitable contribution to contemporary dance."
Butoh developed in the 50s after World War II as a radical alternative to traditional Japanese dance. It embodied human agony with rigid, extreme, and highly controlled movement. Early pieces were ritualistic, almost primeval in their execution. Ohno's work, however, captured an ethereal, timeless beauty amidst the despair.
Jennifer Dunning wrote in The Times' obituary: "Mr. Ohno’s solo performances, for which he was known, were irresistibly powerful and fraught with ambiguity. A humanist, he communicated the themes of the form through identifiable characters, most often flamboyantly female." Ohno was particularly adept at depicting "decaying women", who, amidst their ostentatious hats, skewed wigs, or faded robes, were always forces of nature.
What is especially remarkable about Ohno's contribution to dance is that it came when he was well over 50. He didn't make his U.S. debut until age 77 at La MaMa E.T.C. Japan Society had the privilege to present him in 1993, 1996, and the 1999 retrospective Requiem for the 20th Century [photo above], which was Ohno's final performance outside of Japan. In 2007, as part of Japan Society's 100th anniversary celebration, the Society presented a month-long butoh festival in honor of Ohno's 101st birthday, including performances by Ohno's son, Yoshito Ohno, who heads the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio.
Ohno danced well into his nineties. Even after he became confined to a wheelchair, he performed by any means he could, with his hands alone, or by crawling across the stage, "making use of the working parts of a body ravaged by illness and age," as Dunning notes, "perhaps the perfect metaphor for the dark art of Butoh."
Ohno continues to be an influence on a variety of international artist, as Antony Hegarty recently told Sterogum of his collaboration with the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio.
YouTube has a great collection of video with Ohno, including snippets of several of Ohno's performances from an independent documentary, and lengthy excerpts from The Dead Sea and Mother.
For additional background, see obituaries from BBC and Associated Press.
UPDATE: After this post went up, The Guardian UK published Antony Hegarty's moving tribute to Ohno, and The Washington Post ran their obituary [free registration required for the latter].