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Yoshito Ohno - 'Kuu (Emptiness)'

by Juliet Neidish

October 27, 2007 -- Japan Society, New York, NY

It was a privilege being in the audience at Japan Society to see Yoshito Ohno perform his solo “Kuu (Emptiness).”  This was a very special part of the biennial New York Butoh Festival that takes place in several venues here throughout October and November.  This year’s festival honors the great, seminal butoh master Kazuo Ohno’s 101st birthday.  Yoshito Ohno, his son, choreographed this homage to his father who is ill with Alzheimer’s disease.  Kazuo Ohno became world famous while in his 70s, and performed well into his 90s.  Yoshito, now himself, almost 70, performed and often toured with his father. 

The Japan Society, a beautiful gallery/theater, was a wonderful setting for this event.  Upon entering the theater, the revealed stage was masked in white.  Yoshito stood with his back to the audience just left of center, with head bowed, dressed in a cream-colored suit and slacks.  He stood motionless in that pose until all audience members were seated.  In fact, he remained motionless throughout the entire Bach fugue that opened the piece.  Although Yoshito was in stasis, he seemed to have choreographed the music whose volume was a pathway that fused its way between high sound and low.  This was a powerful and invigorating beginning accomplished with no body movement at all.  Then to the sound of wind blowing, Yoshito slowly began to dance.

The body of the piece was an exploration of memory.  A sentence from the program notes: “I decided on ‘Kuu’ to express my belief that I have been given life by many people, or rather, by everyone around me.”   Different sections of the piece rendered different feelings or sensations such as playfulness, wonderment, struggle and reflection.  They were delineated by his exiting and reentering, sometimes with a slight costume change or with a new sound or musical accompaniment.  The steps and movements themselves were clear and simple.  They were executed with a deliberate concentration and tenacity, colored occasionally and surprisingly with an airy jump or ecstatic skitter. 

There was a sense of great deference in this piece, which included specific references to works he had performed in the past with his father. Although Yoshito was the sole dancer in “Kuu,” the piece was not a vehicle for Yoshito Ohno, the soloist.  Rather, it was clearly about Yoshito in relation to others, and particularly those now absent.  He did a remarkably delicate pas de deux with a tissue with great care in tending to this ethereal presence.  He folded it into a tiny hat to protect his shaved head.  He smiled at it, showed it off lovingly, and even when it disappeared under the wide bottom of his pant leg, he was able to recover it without damage. 

 Yoshito’s inventiveness enabled him to continue the tradition of sharing the stage with his father. Through the use of slide projection, Yoshito showed the audience stark, realistic photos of the very old and wizened Kazuo sleeping peacefully.  Some included Yoshito watching or tenderly caressing his father.  And in the final section, he manipulated a small hand held puppet whose white hair and long face bore a resemblance to his father.  The puppet was a very delicate little figure with extremely expressive, tiny hands, which the audience was able to see because the duet was simultaneously being projected on a screen above.  We were witness to the great gentleness and affection that Yoshito transmitted in his communication with the puppet, thus leaving us with a vivid sensation of vulnerability.  The piece came to an end with Yoshito’s tiny utterance of “thank you”--a surprising moment that broke the spell of magical performance.  Greeted with bouquets of flowers, his bows were authentic, playful and gracious.

A butoh birthday party for Kazuo Ohno hosted by Japan Society followed the performance.  All ticket holders from previous performances in the Ohno series were invited.  There were refreshments, balloons, games, music and performers improvising throughout the gallery.

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