This is a compilation of two pieces: Workshop Words by Kazuo (Ohno pere) (1997) and Food for the Soul by Yoshito (Ohno fils) (1999) both appearing in English for the first time. The book is richly supplemented with stunning black and white photographs of Kazuo in performance and in the studio, and both Ohnos dancing together, many appearing here for the first time in book form: an absolute feast for lovers of dance and butoh.
Food for the Soul is a comprehensive analysis of the various elements of Kazuo Ohno’s art. The first part covers the dancing body: the face, the mouth, the voice, the eye, the ear, the hand, the back. The second part covers various aspects of performance such as: falling, standing, makeup, photographic subjects, twosome and so on.
On watching him perform this feat (falling) one has the distinct impression that an indissoluble bond beckons him to the dimension that unfolds “below the knees”. One senses that a close affinity exists with the lateral space “down there” In falling, he makes the transition from his ordinary, everyday world, where he stands firmly on his feet, to another “limitless” dimension.
Yoshito is writing about his father in particular but one can also read his remarks as a kind of manifesto of what butoh is: for butoh itself may be said to take place in a ‘limitless dimension below the knees.’
Yoshito’s unique position as both the son of one of the founding creators of butoh, and as a founding creator himself, allows him to open up fort the interested reader unique perspectives onto several aspects of butoh practice. Here he is, for example, on the vexed question of the relationship between choreography and improvisation, which is one of the central issues of butoh:
A dance borne of the moment is never static, it doesn’t end at a particular point, for, in being true to its spontaneous nature, it always needs to explore a little further. A ready–made dance, on the other hand, leaves me feeling limited by its built-in constraints.
Against this, however, must be set the knowledge that both Hijikata and the Ohnos rehearsed obsessively, and that in the last decade or so of his own life, Hijikata did not dance himself, but focused more on choreography, creating several of Ohnos most famous pieces.
Yoshito also gives a biography of his father, and a memoir of his own childhood and adolescence as the third major force in the creation of butoh. We are given glimpses of Hijikata, Mishima, Shibusawa, and the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and other luminaries of the Japanese post-war avant-garde, and we learn more about Kazuo as husband, father, and human being.
It’s somewhat disappointing then, in the second half of the book to read Kazuo’s own workshop words. There is no doubt that in performance, the power of Kazuo Ohno’s art is overwhelming. However, the 154 aphorisms which make up Workshop Words reveal Ohno’s rather strange world view, a world view that has much of the Japanese kawaii in it, and less of the darker European influences that make Hijikata’s utterances in language more compelling. Yoshito himself comes across as a much more sophisticated thinker about butoh, and a much better articulator in language of what butoh is. Kazuo’s workshop words are disappointingly banal, cutesy, and somewhat silly, one feels. But then, maybe it’s more the case that butoh itself is an art form which expresses the inexpressible beyond the reach of language, and that Ohno pere is able to express himself better through gestures than through words.
Unlike everyday speech, dance has the potential to release us from the chains of language and its specific meanings.