My meeting with Ohno Kazuo at the „Ohno Kazuo Butoh Dance Studio

In July 2002 I travelled to Tokyo, Japan, to take part in the JALLA Festival. There I also met a Butoh dancer who had taken part in the festival. He saw my performance and asked if I wasn’t interested in doing that performance at the dance studio of Ohno Kazuo in Yokohama! He would be ready to organize everything. Of course I accepted without any delay. It wasn’t all that easy, but everything was soon arranged via telephone and the date was set for Tuesday, July 16. We took a train from Tokyo to Yokohama. A Japanese journalist accompanied us and even our tickets were paid for. The Butoh dancer had given us the exact address.

Three days before I was visiting with a Kurdish-Japanese family who was living just north of Tokyo. The night of July 15. a bad storm was ravaging the whole of Japan and especially the Tokyo area. I hadn’t fallen asleep yet, when suddenly all the windows started to bang together. I wondered what was happening. I had experienced a storm just a few days before, and people had always said that a lot of typhoons build up during that time of the year, but I hadn’t experienced anything of that strength before. Storms and rain made up a real typhoon. It caused a lot of damage and the traffic came to a complete stop. This typhoon caused all trains to Yokohama and surrounding areas to stand still until noon of next day.

A lot went through my mind. I was very excited and many questions kept me thinking. My feelings varied from joy and excitement to nervousness and fear. Fear, that because of the typhoon I might miss the opportunity to meet a great artist. My flight back to Vienna was booked for the next day already. Without understanding a word I constantly followed the news on television and watched how the picture in the weather-reports kept changing. Even my gracious host kept checking if the trains would soon be back on schedule.
Gradually nature began to show her less aggressive side. At about 12:30 the dense clouds lightened up a bit, it stopped raining and the wind let up a bit. The sun started to come through and soon the situation had normalized. Here and there a few trees and branches were still lying around, but even those were removed quickly. And it started to get hot again.
Time to pack! The props of the performance were still at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. The materials were picked up and we took the train to Yokohama. The train-ride lasted about two and a half hours. Then we walked approximately 20 minutes to the studio. From the entrance at the street level to the studio entrance we climbed exactly 88 steps. On the last step and before entering, we stopped to catch our breath, drink some water and smoke a cigarette. All the while I was beset by a number of questions: How would it all develop today, what did I expect from this encounter, how would we interact and so much more?
I’ve busied myself with Butoh Dance for quite some time now. The history of its origin and its development, its appeal, but specially Kazuo Ohno’s impact on me, had always been very strong. Therefore I wanted to enjoy this encounter on all levels, so that it would become one of the unforgettable experiences of my life. We were affectionately welcomed and led into the studio. We found a very simple, not too big a room, full of props, cupboards, costumes, all sorts of materials and a fridge, a stove, a sink, CD-player, one chair, a low-legged table and more. Kazuo Ohno’s house stood, not at all separated from but directly adjoining the studio, complete with a seemingly archaic, wonderful garden.

It was Tuesday and the studio had open house. Three times a week an open lab was held, that everyone could take part in. We were the first today. A dancer was busy with preparing the space, sweeping the wooden floor with rhythmic movements.
Slowly others arrived as well. They all placed their contribution in a box, which was affixed next to the entrance. With bare feet and remarkably quiet they started to work. Yoshito, Kazuo Ohno’s son, who did this without any comment, led the work.

The bodywork appeared to be very free and quite individually pronounced. The participants, most of them of a different age, all danced to different kinds of music coming from the CD-player and being changed every ten minutes by Yoshito. In that manner they accomplished a number of rounds. Just once Yoshito had very quietly spoken directly to a participant. I had no idea how long these people had been doing Butoh, but then again, that was hardly a concern of mine at that point. However, they all worked very interestingly and were quite concentrated.
For the last ten minutes of the work, master Kazuo Ohno himself was brought into the room. He was 96 years old already and could hardly walk anymore. So two companions supported him under the arms. He sat down on the chair. This turned out to be an overwhelming moment for me. He was a truly charismatic personality and had filled the space with an enormous power.
He greeted everyone with a look and a nod of his head. The dancers formed a half-circle in front of him, with closed eyes and each one holding a stick now. A dimmed down, but brightly shining light supplied somewhat of a ritualistic and quite moody atmosphere.
This atmosphere was so moving, that I had begun to cry without knowing it!

A long story, full of joy and pain, two world wars, Hiroshima, applause, love, success, rejection and a lot more, passed the screen before my eyes.
Now they were playing an old Japanese song, equally strong and effective. This song raised the already incredibly ritualistic atmosphere even more. I got goose-bumps and the feeling, that each and everyone of us was trying to reach for the absolute, to go beyond all limitations and take off every masque in order to attain the truth. It was a very cathartic moment. It was a moment of self-realisation and exposure.

Kazuo Ohno, sitting on his chair, slowly started to dance with his upper body, with his hands, his eyes and his dear small head. Astoundingly I said something to myself at that moment: Oh man, how great you are, how you’re holding on to your aims and dreams, how pugnaciously you pursue them to make them come true. How you display your bodily skills until the last breath; how you refuse to let your tired body remain on its own!
Then the time had come to present our own performance. Everyone participated in the preparation of the room. For me there was one thing of special importance: my meeting this man, my history joining his, his life encountering mine, my culture approaching his, his and my experience coming together and my “Sundance” to encounter his “Dance of Darkness”!

His effect on me was, without a doubt, overwhelmingly powerful, a fact, which could hardly be overlooked. But how would I affect him?
The room was very small and so I was very close to the others, who sat down in a circle. The ceiling was very low. Together we were 24 people in this room. In spite of it all being a bit tight, I felt an infinitely wide space, when I saw Kazuo Ohno sitting quietly in his chair, how he listened and watched.
At the end of the performance, everyone applauded and granulated us. Quickly, food and drink were being prepared, Sushi and Sake.
Kazuo Ohno thanked us very quietly and started to dance in his chair again. I’d like to try to describe this dance here briefly and hope that I’ll succeed in this:


The whole dance consisted of a few repeated, simple hand- and head movements. He closed one hand and placed it over his heart, followed by the other hand. And then he raised both of his hands towards the heavens.
It seemed to me as if he was trying to fly. I had the feeling that he wanted to take us all with him, that he wanted to show us a time when he was young and full of bodily strength.
His hands were trembling and his eyes were full of tears. With each movement of his hand I saw how one body was set free in this space and that was our body. From time to time he looked at us and repeated the movements, as if he wanted to tell something to each one of us.

I started to cry again, took a picture together with him, put my hand into his and felt his warmth.
His son said, that he wanted to thank us for our performance and handed us two books by Kazuo Ohno as a present. Since it had gotten late and the last train to Tokyo would leave soon, we had no more time to eat. We said good-bye and left a photograph of one of our Lalish Theatre Laboratory performances with the studio. They packed us some food, so we would be able to eat on the train.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever see Kazuo Ohno again. Will he live long enough so that I’ll be able to see him one more time or not?

Main things I enjoyed this encounter on all levels, so that it become one of the unforgettable experiences of my life.

Nigar Hasib, Vienna, August 8. 2002

P.S.: I had been in Japan twice more since then, in 2004 and in 2006, but I hadn’t been able to meet Kazuo Ohno once again. He had been very old already, but maybe he’ll live much, much longer and there will still be a next time.

Translated into English by Hans Echnaton Schano, theatre director.