Life, Death, and Mothers: Kawaguchi Performing Kazuo Ohno's Butoh

Takao Kawaguchi's About Kazuo Ohno

by Cameron McKinney on October 6th, 2016

Takao Kawaguchi, "About Kazuo Ohno". Photo by Bozzo.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the emergence of butoh in Japan enthralled and enraged audiences across the world with its blatant sexuality and occasionally vulgar movements. In 2016, when information and video are more easily accessed than in other time in history, a butoh performance such as Takao Kawaguchi’s About Kazuo Ohno is still as mystifying and mesmerizing today as the premiere of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Forbidden Colors, which is often hailed as the very first butoh piece. Kawaguchi, in his emotional and humorous tribute to the ground-breaking butoh practitioner Kazuo Ohno at the Japan Society, recaptured the magic of the avant-garde style; a style that changed the paradigm of dance by performing intricate weight shifts and grotesque posturing that reclaim primal sexuality, a sense of childish play, and the full spectrum of life’s experiences.

Hijikata Tatsumi, 禁色 (Forbidden Colors), 1959.

Hijikata Tatsumi, 禁色 "Forbidden Colors", 1959.

Kazuo Ohno, 'La Argentina', 1978.

Kazuo Ohno, "La Argentina", 1978.

From the moment that the audience entered the Japan Society on Friday night, we were thrown headfirst into site-specific butoh solo by Kawaguchi. Drawing inspiration from the "Death & Birth" portion of Ohno’s renowned La Argentina (a dance where Ohno embodied a Spanish dancer known as "La Argentina"), Kawaguchi at first seemed to be improvising his interactions with people in the crowd and his pathways across the Japan Society’s main hall. Though disparate objects were strewn throughout the space (tarp, curtains, a water hose, bed-sheets, etc), it soon became apparent that there was a method to his madness. Breaching the usually off-limits areas of the performance venue, he demonstrated the butoh ideology of accessing all parts of the human psyche. In the garden, he blew steadily into a water hose he had placed in the pond, smirking as bubble arose at the opposite end. He frantically searched through the garden’s many rocks, pausing to examine each stone before throwing it aside irritatedly. Kawaguchi opened his spirit to his entire environment, creating from the materials in front of him and destroying both his own inventions and those of the garden’s designer. Indeed, it was a definite series of deaths and rebirths that summoned the rebellious spirit of butoh pioneers: destroy foundation, subvert the established notions of order, rigidity, beauty. Do not neglect frustration, loneliness, or anger, but instead allow them to realized alongside a desire to be childish. Kawaguchi’s own voice shone through even in the evening’s opening act. I was so focused on his experience that I hardly noticed he had guided us into the theater proper.

Big Dance Theater, 'Resplendent Shimmering Topaz Waterfall'

Big Dance Theater, "Resplendent Shimmering Topaz Waterfall". Youtube screenshot, 2016.

After the audience had settled, the formal performance began with Resplendent Shimmering Topaz Waterfall by Big Dance Theater. Inspired by the work of Tatsumi Hijikata— whom many consider butoh’s founding father— the work opened to the sound of water from a suspended ice bag dripping into a bucket below. The performers silently gestured to each other, communicating a story of hardship and strife that proved to be the perfect opener for Kawaguchi’s tribute, adjusting the audience’s eyes to the use of subtle movements and minimalistic storytelling.

Kawaguchi began his stage performance with "Embryo’s Dream" from My Mother (1981), a solo that chronicles Ohno’s early years with his mother. A lone spotlight illuminated Kawaguchi holding a single, long-stemmed flower in an outstretched hand. Masaki Iwana, another famed butoh performer, once wrote that in butoh one movement dies as another is born. As I watched some inner light wither away in Kawaguchi’s face, only to be reborn again a moment later— a flickering flame fanned by the deliberate placement of Kawaguchi’s every body part— I remembered this idea. At times, Kawaguchi held the flower close to his body, as if protecting the only tangible part of his most cherished memory. Other times, he held the flower above his head, softening his knees to make himself smaller, and gesturing to an invisible and taller someone beside him. In these moments, Kawaguchi embodied the joy of a child who had discovered a four-leaf clover for the first time, or who had found his mother’s favorite flower and brought it to her to cheer her up.

Takao Kawaguchi

Takao Kawaguchi. Photo by Bozzo.

Kazuo Ohno, "My Mother".

Instead of exiting in between pieces, Kawaguchi brought all the costumes for the every piece onstage when he entered. He changed his costume in full view of the audience after each piece, perhaps as a reminder that despite the performance being a tribute to Ohno, the person you’re seeing onstage is Takao Kawaguchi. In the duality that butoh seeks to grasp— the joys and the sorrows, the highs and the lows— this simple act allowed Kawaguchi to represent both a man in the thralls of performance, and a subject that engages in the everyday routines that we all do. It was a humble artistic choice that revealed much about Kawaguchi as person and the thoughtfulness behind his craft.

Takao Kawaguchi, 'About Kazuo Ohno'

Takao Kawaguchi. Photo by Ayumi Sakamoto, 2016.

In the piece that followed, Episode in the Creation of Genesis, Kawaguchi donned a heavy white garb with a flowing red piece of fabric attached. A Buddhist or perhaps Gregorian chant echoed throughout the room as Kawaguchi searched the stage for an unnamed something hidden in his own past, present, or future. What Kawaguchi’s performance best emphasized here was the the immense power inherent in measured subtlety. In this work, his age showed in the most profound way. Kazuo Ohno himself, who didn’t start his butoh career in his fifties and lived until 103, brought to the stage the full weight of his life long life’s experiences— the hardship of watching your friends die, moments of heartbreak and loss, the joys of a son who also adopted butoh, and all the small unretainable moments that weave the fabric of our lives. From my second row seat, I made eye contact with Kawaguchi several times as he performed throughout the night. In this excerpt, Kawaguchi’s dance felt weighed down, his eyelids seemed heavy from life experiences, and his eyes looked as restless as the searching body that contained them.

Takao Kawaguchi, 'About Kazuo Ohno'

Takao Kawaguchi. Photo by Ayumi Sakamoto, 2016.

His next excerpt was "Dreams of Love", another part of Ohno’s masterpiece My Mother. This time, Kawaguchi changed into a business suit, reminiscent perhaps of Japan’s salarymen, styling his hair in a long standing mirror upstage. These costume-changing interludes were perhaps another insight into Kawaguchi’s own personal butoh, in that they portrayed a process of self-becoming and self-realization. In "Dreams of Love", Kawaguchi found more fluidity in his motions, directly engaging the audience with both arms outstretched towards us. With humorous glances and an acute sense of comedic timing, Kawaguchi demonstrates the very particular articulation of Ohno’s hands and fingers, which themselves can embody a whole range of emotion, at times tensing with anger or floating through the air with elation.

Takao Kawaguchi, 'About Kazuo Ohno'

Takao Kawaguchi. Photo by Bozzo.

In his next performance, Kawaguchi returns to La Argentina. His performances of Tango Flower and Tango Bird included an incredible reveal: the whole show had been danced to the sound of old recordings of Ohno’s live performances. Demonstrating the precision Kawaguchi took in recreating Ohno’s every step, he stomped his foot at the exact time as Ohno in the sound recording. Some audible gasps arose from the audience as Kawaguchi continued to move robustly back and forth across the stage, his arms rising and falling as they eased into the buoyant sway of the tango music. His final performances were a direct contrast to his opening acts&mdah; Kawaguchi smiles freely but when his eyes settled on an audience member, one could easily see the internal dialogue of joys and sorrows that had become an external projection of a memory. Ohno had written that he first discovered butoh in his mother womb, and while it felt at times that Kawaguchi was dancing alone in a room, in other fleeting moments, he seemed to find a partner in Ohno, Ohno’s mother, or perhaps his own mother.

In an exhibit hosted by the Japan Society after the show, Ohno’s costumes, performance posters, and program notes were on display. In one of his old programs, Ohno wrote that in his dance he aimed to "accept all the burden and bewilderment of life with [his] whole body", and that such a goal is how dance originated. Takao Kawaguchi’s tribute performance achieved a supreme level of embodiment that demonstrated the full potential of the avant-garde art form. He breathed the essence of not only his life, but of Ohno and Ohno's mothers as well, into every slight contortion and moment of stillness. Within the hazily defined world of butoh, Kawaguchi related the story of a dance pioneer to all of our own inner stories, perhaps to encourage us to reclaim a part of ourselves— just as Kazuo Ohno did before him.

"It suddenly popped into my head, I want to become Kazuo Ohno."

Takao Kawaguchi, a dance and media artist and former member of Dumb Type, underwent the process for making About Kazuo Ohno by copying the movements from videos of Ohno's three seminal performances. This review is of the September 16, 2016 performance at the Japan Society.


Cameron McKinney is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and author from Memphis, TN. He is the Artistic Director of Kizuna Dance in NYC and teaches regularly at Gibney Dance.