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arts

Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010)

By Patricia Sauthoff [ Thu Jun 3 2010 2:39 PM ]

After he lost his ability to walk, in 2001, Japanese dancer Kazou Ohno simply danced in his wheelchair.

Sadly, the dance is now over, as Ohno, at 103, passed away yesterday. Not exactly a household name, Ohno's image crept into pop culture early last year as he graced the cover of Antony and the Johnson's The Crying Light.

But avant garde art fans are likely to know Ohno as the emotional force behind butoh, a dance form that originated in Japan in the late 1950s and gained popularity in the west in the 1980s.

Ohno is one of those artists who lived life like it was art itself, which probably explains why his work is so captivating. Though he didn't begin to dance until he was nearly 30, once he did, he never stopped. In 1933 he began to study modern dance, an activity that was derailed by his being drafted into the Imperial Army during World War II. After his release from a New Guinea prisoner of war camp after the end of the war, in which he'd spent 9 years, he immediately returned to the artform.

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In 1960 Ohno teamed up with dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, who had created controversy the year before with his new style of dance. Together the two created one of the most otherworldly styles to hit the stage.

To watch butoh is to see a dancer move with a ghostly presence. The action is sometimes so slow it's barely intelligible, though at other times dancers hop along a stage in a series of painful-looking movements.

Sometimes considered performance art rather than dance form, butoh's legacy is not without controversy. But lets not get into that. Lets, instead, just remember a master, one of the most graceful performers to ever take the stage. The man who, two years ago, said "On the verge of death one revisits the joyful moments of a lifetime. One’s eyes are opened wide-gazing into the palm, seeing death, life, joy and sorrow with a sense of tranquillity."