Tuesday, August 03, 2010


All day yesterday I was feeling a bit off. Maybe it was being woken up by that earthquake off the coast. Or the unrelenting humid heat. Whatever it was, I felt unsettled.

As I made my way to Yokohama to the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio via a subway, a commuter rail train, a fancy mall in the middle of a commuter rail station, another subway, and a winding walk in the dark, it occurred to me that maybe what I'd been feeling all day was the anticipation of the momentous occasion of going to the Ohno studio.

I'm not a religious person, and I'm not one to lightly esteem important figures, but nonetheless, as I made my long way to the studio high in the hills of Yokohama, it did feel like I was a pilgrim of sorts. Despite its place in the Japanese avant-garde, and its iconoclastic nature, the butoh community still honors lineages, and I feel strongly connected to Ohno through mine. My first teacher, Deborah Butler/Kitsune, was a student of Doranne Crable, who herself studied with Ohno Kazuo. Moreover, my dissertation subjects, Eiko & Koma, were short-time students and long-time friends of Ohno. When he died 2 months ago after 103 years of life, I joined in celebrating his dance.

As I walked up the dark streets toward the studio, I remembered Eiko telling me about walking this same path almost 40 years ago, in the cold, in the heat, getting to the door and then sometimes turning back because she did not feel she could handle the intensity of a workshop with Ohno that particular night. Despite a seemingly helpful map (an "access" map showing landmarks and a walking path from public transportation is de rigueur in Japan), I couldn't seem to find the studio. The first person I asked sent me in the wrong direction. The second person I asked needed to get his reading glasses to see the map, but his wife knew just where I was going and decided to walk me there, saying "muzukashii, ne." "It's very difficult to find." And it's true, I wouldn't have found it without her help!

She got me to the right house, and Ohno Yoshito, Kazuo's son (in his 70s,  and an important dancer in his own right) answered the door. Turns out the studio was right next door, but since I was in the house, he asked if I wanted to meet Ohno Kazuo. "Huh?!?" I think. But then I realize that I am being shown into a room with Kazuo-sensei's picture, flowers, his wife's picture, too. I wonder if this is the room where he lay all those years, cared for by his students as his Alzheimers advanced and he retreated. I pay my quick respects and then go next door to the studio to wait for Yoshito-sensei to come start the workshop; he's just returned from a television interview and is running a little late.

I enter the studio and it's just as I've seen in pictures and on film: a long, single room; wood floors. Chairs, a kitchenette near the door. Piles of papers, costumes - the long, vintage dresses favored by Kazuo - hanging from racks. Plastic storage containers of ladies' hats, shoes. Bouquets of plastic flowers - dance props - and some bouquets of fresh flowers - memorials. In the rafters are stuffed five or six suitcases. The walls are more bare than I remember seeing in photos, but propped along the walls are many frames wrapped in fabric or bubble wrap. Perhaps they were used in last month's memorial celebration and have not yet been returned to their places on the wall. Some pictures remain on display: Ohno in one of his hats, holding a flower. The iconic image of Yoshito and Hijikata from the dance considered the first butoh performance. A portrait of the Dalai Lama. Especially moving for me is a photo of Pina Bausch kissing a bed-ridden Kazuo; these two now-gone lights of my dance world, energies locked together.

Four other students - Japanese, Japanese-French, and Taiwanese, ranging in age from 20s to 60s - are already there waiting, watching a DVD of Kazuo. I join them, taking in the space of the studio. My feet absorb the solid wooden floor. I smell the scent of vintage clothing and costumes. I feel all the bodies of all the students who have moved through this space, named and unnamed. I join with them, bringing into the space with me my dance tribe: Deborah, Ellen, Nathan, Alice, Hortense, all the others. How appropriate, then, that when Yoshito-sensei begins the workshop, he asks us to begin with what he calls a "space renshuu" or space practice. Feel the space, he says.

Throughout the workshop, he talks - in Japanese with some English thrown in - illustrating for us what he wants us to work on with words, calligraphy, a picture of a Rodin sculpture, a demonstrated movement, a textile, butoh history, articles from around the world about Kazuo's death...all manner of materials are used as inspiration. We dance to some New Age-sounding music, two versions of "Amazing Grace" (Kazuo was a Christian, Yoshito reminds us), Bach's Toccata and Fugue. We practice three types of gazes: insect eye, human eye, bird's eye. And finally we spend a lot of time dancing with flowers. Having read Kazuo Ohno's World: from without and within, the structure of the workshop is familiar to me, even though I've never before met Yoshito, let alone Kazuo.

When the workshop ends, we gather around a low table for tea and snacks that the students have brought  with them. Talk is low, cordial. I know I'm missing the train for which I printed the schedule, but can't get up to leave until the group disperses. Finally, I walk back to the train station with the others (oh, these stairs, I didn't even see them before) and hope that with all my transfers I will make the last train. (I do, just barely.)

And so the pilgrimage is cyclical. The workshop is not just the being there; it's in the getting there and the getting back, too.

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