Kazuo Ohno, a founder of Japanese modern dance, passed away last week on June 1. You might recognize this image of Ohno during a 1977 performance as the cover of Antony & the Johnsons’ 2009 album The Crying Light. Below is an obituary for Ohno written by Antony which appeared in the London newspaper The Guardian yesterday.
Kazuo Ohno, who has died aged 103, was one of the pioneers of butoh, Japan’s striking contribution to contemporary dance. Butoh, which incorporated elements of existentialism, surrealism, German expressionism, kabuki theatre and eastern spiritual thought, was a reaction in part to the horrors of the second world war.
In 1938, Ohno had been drafted into the Japanese army as an intelligence officer. He spent nine years in China and New Guinea, and was held for two years as a prisoner of war. Ohno presented his first solo performance, Jellyfish Dance, in Tokyo in 1949. The performance was thought to be a meditation on the burials at sea that he had observed on board a vessel bearing captives to be repatriated to Japan. The young artist Tatsumi Hijikata was hypnotised by Ohno’s performance that night, and their destinies became entwined. With Ohno as his muse, Hijikata spent the next several years developing Ankoku Butoh-ha – “the dance of utter darkness”.
Using memories of maternal love and the archetype of the divine child as the basis for much of his tender expression, Ohno frequently reduced his audience to tears. Traversing the stage in a hypnotic reverie, he would gesture skyward with his long, curling hands. He was a masterful and exacting improviser, and performed in schools, gardens and hospitals, as well as avant-garde institutions around the world.
Ohno was born in Hakodate, Hokkaido; his father was a fisherman and his mother a musician. A gifted athlete, he attended Japan Athletic College, in Tokyo. His life changed in 1926 when, while still a student, he attended a performance by the Argentinian flamenco dancer Antonia Mercé, known as “the Queen of the Castanets”. Soon after, he began to study with the modern-dance pioneers Baku Ishii and Takaya Eguchi.
Upon completion of his studies, Ohno began teaching physical education in a private Christian school in Yokohama. Under the influence of the school’s headteacher, he converted to the Baptist faith in 1930. Its influence would later become apparent in his work. He married Chie Nakagawa in 1933; they would have two sons, Yoshito and Yukito.
From 1960 onwards, Hijikata directed a host of solo performances featuring Ohno. The first, Divine, was a tribute to the dying transvestite prostitute from Jean Genet’s subversive 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers. From the beginning, Ohno was yin to Hijikata’s yang. While some butoh dancers later came to embody an almost impenetrable stoicism, and others grotesque horror, Ohno expressed something more ethereal, feminine and ecstatic in his reveries.
Ohno shed all social constructs in pursuit of essence, believing that “form comes by itself” wherever there is spiritual presence. His revelations of love, pain and ghostly innocence were conveyed with the intuition of a great elder.
His first piece to gain international attention was Admiring La Argentina in 1977, directed by Hijikata, in which he paid a dreamlike homage to Mercé. The production won the Dance Critics’ Circle award in Japan. Ohno frequently danced with his son Yoshito, and they performed together in works such as My Mother, Water Lilies and The Dead Sea.
As a teenager in 1987, I stumbled across an image of Ohno on a peeling poster in the streets of Angers in north-west France. Captivated by this mysterious portrait, I placed the picture above my bed, where it has remained to this day. As I discovered more about the artist and his work, Ohno’s dance and philosophy became a source of great inspiration to me. In 2009, I featured a portrait of him on the cover of my album The Crying Light.
Earlier this year, I visited the Kazuo Ohno dance studio in Yokohama, established some 60 years ago, and collaborated with Yoshito on a performance celebrating his father’s life and work. At Ohno’s bedside, I witnessed a surprising vitality and sensed an almost invisible movement reverberating through his elderly frame. As he lay there, his window open to reveal a cherry blossom tree and a view of Mount Fuji, I realised that Ohno had developed a creative process that was a byproduct of his spiritual practice. Yoshito told me during my visit to the studio that they aspired to total freedom in their dance, and that it emerged from a place of universal love.
Kazuo’s last international performance was Requiem for the 20th Century, at the Japan Society in New York in 1999. His 101st birthday was marked by the Japan Society with a butoh festival including performances by Yoshito and an array of younger dancers.
Ohno’s appearances grew less frequent as he became increasingly immobile, although he continued to make gestures from his wheelchair, interacting with some invisible spirit with his hands. Once hospitalised, he continued to dance with his eyes and, at the last, with his breath. “Even upon taking leave of my flesh and bones,” he wrote in the book Workshop Words, “I want to continue dancing as a ghost.”
He is survived by Yoshito and Yukito, and by his brother and two sisters. Chie died in 1997.
•Kazuo Ohno, dancer, born 27 October 1906; died 1 June 2010