New York

Kazuo Ohno

Joyce Theater

Butoh, the Japanese experimental dance-theater form, has been performed recently around the country by some of its younger practitioners, notably the Sankai Juku troupe and the Butoh-influenced dancers Eiko and Koma. The latest New York performances of Kazuo Ohno, the 79-year-old “father” of Butoh, both confirmed its status as one of the major forms of contemporary avant-garde theater and restated in emphatic terms its risky, limit-pushing esthetic. Although Ohno’s performances recalled Butoh’s origins in traditional forms of theater, they were in no way academic; his virtuosic dancing and mimicry, dramatic role-playing, and consummate showmanship made the works stunning examples of a distinctly contemporary performance art.

Unlike Tatsumi Hijikata, the “other” founder of Butoh, Ohno has no official school and he usually performs alone (his son Yoshito occasionally appears in some of his works). Onstage, he embodies the many contradictions in which Butoh revels: extreme grace and unexpected awkwardness, personal memories and universal metaphors, touching pathos and crude humor. Melodrama, which has been a degraded term in Modern Western performance art, is explicit in Butoh’s overheated expressionistic grotesqueries, and its roots are evident in Ohno’s deliberately unresolved merger of reflective movement and of garish drag-queen flamboyancy.

Butoh also emphasizes primal emotional states, particularly the confrontation of death, in a classic expressionist manner. Both of Ohno’s recent performance works were ghostly séances, conjuring acts intent upon rendering memory and mortality so palpable that they became concrete. Admiring La Argentina, 1977, was Ohno’s evocation of the Spanish dancer whose performance in Tokyo in 1929 inspired him to become a dancer. Typical of Butoh performers, Ohno turned this experience into a metaphor for the sorrow of passing time and the madness of living within the framework of inevitable death. His use of varied forms of music—Bach, tangos, a recording of La Argentina’s tapping shoes and castanets—contributed an atonal, poetic quality to his performance. Outrageously costumed, alternately vigorous, coquettish, and swooning, Ohno presented a multilayered diagram of personal impressions, collapsing past and present into one flamboyant act. Like Gloria Swan-son’s portrayal of the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard (an allusion that Ohno, deliberately or not, also evoked), his La Argentina was at once pathetic and fierce, dizzily out of touch with the real world and frighteningly in touch with a sinister spiritual one.

Ohno elaborated on these themes in The Dead Sea, 1984. Again dressed principally in female attire, Ohno capered, tottered, and waltzed through the work’s six sections. This cross-dressing in itself summarized Butoh’s “grotesque” aim: to combine a reverential traditionalism (the Kabuki woman played by a man) and a sexually provocative exhibitionism. Ohno’s outrageous performance was punctuated by the entrances and exits of his son, a ghostly figure who traveled along an X defined by stage lighting. His precise control while performing a series of almost imperceptible movements to the accompaniment of otherworldly electronic music offered a visual and metaphorical counterpoint to Ohno’s ceaseless cavorting. The cumulative effect was unsettling, compelling, and deeply moving. Within the broadest philosophical context, this “theater of revolt” captures and restructures the meaning of human experience, in a risky undertaking that few contemporary performances even attempt, much less realize so completely.

John Howell