[BOOK REVIEW]Japanese dancer’s work springs to life

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[BOOK REVIEW]Japanese dancer’s work springs to life

To fully appreciate “Kazuo Ohno’s World,” you need to read the book more than once. The first time around, you may find the telling photographs of this 98-year-old Japanese modern dancer so alluring that they won’t let your eyes move on to the text.
Graphic photographs of this aged yet still mentally sharp dancer are a major attraction. Selected from more than 5,000 slides, the photographs show him on and off stage as a young girl, a unicorn, an elderly noblewoman ― you name it. As stated in the book, to Mr. Ohno “a stage is a womb” where he can become whatever and whomever he wants.
Subtitled “From Without and Within,” the book is a collaboration of the dancer, his son Yoshito Ohno (a dancer himself) and translator John Barrett.
Kazuo Ohno boasts a career spanning close to six decades, beginning with his solo debut in the late 1940s. In the 1960s, Mr. Ohno, along with Tatsumi Hijikat, established a new genre of dance dubbed butoh, which combined traditional Japanese forms of dance, like noh, kabuki and bunraku, into an avant-garde modern dance.
The book is essentially divided into two parts. Yoshito Ohno pens the first portion, titled “Food for the Soul,” which contains rich examples from Kazuo Ohno’s past performances. The power imbuing his dance is analyzed first from each part of the artist’s body ― face, mouth, ears, and so forth. This is followed by a further description of the performance according to small themes, such as makeup and femininity-masculinity.
The author then looks at the artist as a human being, exploring his family background and gestation period as a dancer.
The book’s highlight, however, comes in “Workshop Words,” written by Kazuo Ohno himself. Mr. Ohno tells his students that butoh transcends all techniques and says, “I am, you are, we all are, nothing but the next layer. . . in a never-ending chain of events.”
At times he is more specific, saying, “Don’t treat dance as some kind of abstract game. Take each and every step as though you were putting your life on the line. I don’t care whether you’re skillful or not. What I do care about, though, is that your performance makes me walk away afterward feeling grateful for being alive.”
The book leaves you with a craving to watch Kazuo Ohno perform live. Alas, there are no plans for him to perform here in the near future. It seems, for the moment, we have to content ourselves with the book.


“Kazuo Ohno’s World”

By Kazuo Ohno, Yoshito Ohno
Translated by John Barrett
Wesleyan University Press
Amazon price: $22.02


by Chun Su-jin
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