I've just spent a week at the very first Nelson…
In Japan, in suburban Yokohama, up a bunch of steps, in residential house is The Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio. There is a small hand painted sign in black and white in English and Japanese that says where we are. The path has mosaic flowers inlaid into the concrete. There is a fat grey and white cat. it is fairly humble place for an artistic revolution to have taken place.
It is here that from 1961 to 2010 Kazuo Ohno, the co- creator of Butoh rehearsed and performed his pieces. It is here that since his death his son, Yoshito Ohno has continued work on Butoh and it is here that I took part in one of Yoshito’s weekly workshops.
Inside the studio seems small. There are many photos and paintings on the wall and on the ground. There is a piano in the corner and there are several buckets of water. There is a collection of high heeled shoes. There are about 20 people training, some come every week and others, like me, have come from overseas to train. There is a woman from Singapore, a man from the UK and a man from Brazil. Yoshito knows I am from NZ and he introduces himself to me. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese so our conversation is fairly brief. One of the other dancers translates for him during the workshop.
To begin he talks for about 20 minutes, possibly longer. He tells us he was born 2 years after WW2. He trained as a soldier but he wanted to be a dancer. His father was happy for him to dance but his mother wanted him to do anything but. He danced with his father and together they met Hijikata (the co-creator of Butoh), who was at the time a classical ballet dancer. The three of them were thrown out of classic dance institutions. So they created Butoh. The word Butoh comes from the Japanese word for dance Buyo. Yoshito said that Hijikata thought that Butoh sounded harder and more brittle than Buyo. In the early days of Butoh the dance they created was hard and unyielding.
They first dance he had us perform was to a piece of music called “My portrait”. He asked us to in this dance “meet the space”. We dance.
Next he gives us each a flower and asks us to use it as our teacher. He says that the Japanese word for flower “hana” also means brightness. He says we should put brightness in our heads and feet and fingers. He says that the flower is both light and dark as we see the beautiful petals at the top, but it also has its roots in the ground in the darkness. We dance.
A man comes in and plays the trombone for us. Yoshito tells us to let the music be our teacher. We dance.
He gives us a piece of cotton to dance with and shows us how it is both soft and strong. We dance.
He gives a tissue to dance with. He tells us that the way to become more delicate is to remember the paper space between things. We dance.
He tells us that everything is both alive and dead at the same time. Perhaps to illustrate this point, the workshop ends with a performance by him with a Kazuo Ohno puppet. It is both a sweet and disturbing piece.
After the workshop we are invited to a tea party. Sushi and biscuits are brought out and some of Yoshito’s students dance for us. The first is a piece called “Are you my mother?” and features a man dancing is a lace nightgown. The second is a man performing Hamlet’s To be or not to be speech in English and Japanese. The last is a performance by a man with a handheld windmill.
I have used Butoh exercises in both my theatre pieces and in workshop settings for some years now. I had hoped to leave studio with tools to further my Butoh journey and to teach others. Instead what I go was an experience. Yoshito told us that things have an essence that it does not change. He told us that a dance should be like a prayer. He said that we have everything is within us and if we want to we can touch the universe with our fingertips.