Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno

The creators of butoh

Ohno (left) and
Hijikata in their
Rose-colored Dance

Butoh, or the “dance of utter darkness,” was created in the 1950s by Japanese artists Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Marked by white body makeup, shaved heads, distorted body shapes and taboo subject matter, butoh combines elements of theater, German expressionism and modern dance with facets of traditional Japanese dance forms.

Ohno, born in Hakodate, Japan, in 1906, got a late start to dance. He saw his first dance show in his early 20s but didn’t give his first concert until 1949, at the age of 43. Hijikata, 22 years his junior, studied ballet, modern, jazz and German expressionist dance in his 20s. In the 1950s, shortly after Ohno’s choreographic debut, they met studying under Takaya Eguchi (a student of Mary Wigman). They worked together to create a unique dance of intensely controlled physicality and theatrical transformation, which Hijikata named butoh.

Ohno and Hijikata mostly choreographed separately, and their choreographic styles were very different. Ohno adopted an androgynous persona onstage, dressing in both male and female costumes, to highlight transformation and mask his own identity. Hijikata had a darker approach, embracing the grotesque, provocative and violent. His pieces were often shocking and disturbing and even got him banned by the Japanese Dance Association early in his career. Despite their differences, both used exaggerated facial expressions, a hunched spine and gnarled hand gestures—characteristics that now distinguish butoh.

Hijikata stopped dancing in 1973 but continued to direct and choreograph on Ohno and others until his death in 1986. Ohno performed butoh works in theaters, hospitals and outside venues throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He opened the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, dancing well into his 90s until his death in 2010. His son, Yoshito Ohno, took over his studio and continues to teach butoh workshops today. DT

Kazuo Ohno (background) and his son, Yoshito, in Requiem for the 20th Century

Fun Facts

*Near his death in 1986, Hijikata sat up in his hospital bed and performed his last dance for those attending him.

*Ohno loved Western culture and used Argentine tango music, Chopin, Bach, Elvis Presley and Pink Floyd in his work.

The Work

Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors) (1959) Considered highly shocking, this duet of Hijikata’s—one of his first butoh pieces—was for himself and Ohno’s son, Yoshito. It explores themes of violence and sexuality.

Rose-colored Dance (1965) For this duet, Hijikata and Ohno wore long, white dresses to appear androgynous and mixed pedestrian gestures, like an embrace, with traditional Western dance, like arabesques.

La Argentina Sho (Admiring La Argentina) (1977) In this hour-long solo (considered his masterpiece), Ohno transforms into many different characters, from female to male and back again, in homage to Antonia Mercé, a Spanish dancer.

The Legacy Lives On

Kazuo Ohno’s son, Yoshito Ohno, and several students of Hijikata and Ohno continue to perform and teach butoh around the world today, including Ko Murobushi, who co-founded the all-female butoh company Ariadone with Carlotta Ikeda. At age 68, Murobushi is considered the leading disciple of Hijikata’s choreographic vision. Additionally, the husband and wife duo Eiko & Koma, who studied with Ohno, create and perform works influenced by butoh throughout the U.S. In October, Eiko performed a solo installation work, A Body in a Station, in the Philadelphia Amtrak station. Annually, butoh practitioners gather at several festivals, including the Moving Bodies Butoh Festival in Dublin, Ireland, the Asheville Butoh Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Seattle Butoh Festival.

Resources:

Print:

Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, by Sondra Fraleigh, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Gray Grits, by Bruce Baird, Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2012.

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003.

WEB:

Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio

kazuoohnodancestudio.com

Photo (top) by Tadao Nakatani, courtesy of Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio; by William W. Irwin, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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