A dance that needs no tune

At the beginning of June, dancer Kazuo Ohno passed away at age 103 years old. Ohno is credited with Tatsumi Hijikata as the co-founder of the uniquely Japanese dance form butoh. To get some insight on Ohno’s contributions, I spoke to Professor Takeshi Morishita of the Tatsumi Hijikata Archive at Keio University for a memorial for The Japan Times.

Morishita first met Ohno during the period in the early 1970s when the famed dancer had stopped performing and was seemingly estranged from Hijikata.

“When I first met him, he was an old man,” related Morishita. “I didn’t know him as ‘Ohno-sensei’ the dancer, only as an old man with long hair. He was 67 at the time and talked about music and food, ordinary subjects. It was only after 10 years that he started dancing again.”

As I sat down with the bespectacled Morishita in his office, he shuffled through stacks of papers like a proper archivist to find ephemera to show me Ohno and Hijikata together in performances and practices. It was the amazing contrast of these two men that brought life to the contradictions and unusual sensibilities of butoh, a form that Morishita says “doesn’t stop being avante-gard.”

One surprising discovery was the strength of the influence of Western culture on both dancers in the creation of what had seemed to me to be so particularly Japanese. Not only was Ohno a Baptist Christian, his formative experience of dance came when he saw a performance by “La Argentine,” the Spanish dancer Antonia Merce, in the ’30s. One of Ohno’s best known works is “Admiring La Argentina” from 1977, which was created in honor of Merce in collaboration with Hijikata.

Hijikata, who never left Japan, was also strongly attracted to Western avante-garde art. Morishita showed me reproductions of Hijikata’s notebooks that show studies of the works of his European contemporaries.

“Hijikata liked the Christian world, too, though he wasn’t a follower himself,” explained Morishita. “He created butoh performances with Christian images – here (pointing to a photograph of a performance of ‘Rebellion of the Body’) he seems to be like Christ in the end. Butoh dancers were influenced by European and Christian images. Hijikata liked Western writers and artists, Klimt, Hans Richter, Egon Schiele. In the 1970s, Hijikata liked Francis Bacon, one of his favorites. So he was influenced by Western writers and artists. He made many movements inspired by Western artists.”

Despite the similar interests in foreign culture, when it came to dance, the two men had very different approaches:

“Ohno-sensei didn’t teach about dance,” says Morishita. “He’d say ‘Dance freely!’ So it’s difficult to dance like Ohno-sensei. But Hijikata taught particular movements, and created a system of notations for choreography butoh dance.”

Hijikata rejected improvisation, but Ohno-sensei embodied it. In a sense you could think of these two different approaches coming together to establish butoh much like the syncretization that happened in Japan when the foreign Buddhism melded with the local animist Shinto religion.

“How will butoh evolve from now?” I asked Maro Akaji, leader of the popular Dairakudakan dance troupe in attempt to understand the whole of this dance form. His answer?

“In a variety of directions led by the will of the individual dancer,” which seems good enough of a response now, given butoh’s origins.

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