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Walking into the REDCAT lobby one discovered precious archival materials of the Butoh master Kazuo Ohno, videos of his performances and debris artfully placed throughout. Suddenly a figure, Takao Kawaguchi, begins roller skating past wearing a motorcycle helmet and a cape made from a blue tarp. As the curtain time approached, Kawaguchi literally wrestled with plastic, rubber hoses and other debris as if fighting with everyone else’s discarded trash. Before leading us into the theater, Kawaguchi gathered up the majority of the materials and created a stunning gown befitting a proud homeless princess.

Takao Kawaguchi in About Kazuo Ohno - Photo by bozzo
Takao Kawaguchi in About Kazuo Ohno – Photo by bozzo

The Butoh dance form rose out of Japan around 1959 through the collaborations of Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. It has evolved into many different styles and covers a wide range of subjects; including those topics considered to be taboo. Butoh was made popular in the US by the Japanese group Sankai Juku that first performed in Los Angeles during the 1984 Summer Olympics.

In About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving The Butoh Diva Takao Kawaguchi performed excerpts from three of Kazuo Ohno’s famous works including Admiring La Argentina (1977), My Mother (1981) and Dead Sea, Ghost, Wienerwaltz (1985). In the program Kawaguchi states that he never saw Kazuo Ohno perform live onstage and that he literally copied Ohno’s work “move for move” off of videos rather than improvising the characters like the master. In full disclosure, I too never saw Kazuo Ohno perform live and therefore cannot relate whether or not Kawaguchi succeeded in, as he put it, giving a “copy-cat” performance of Ohno’s work.

Takao Kawaguchi in About Kazuo Ohno - Photo by bozzo
Takao Kawaguchi in About Kazuo Ohno – Photo by bozzo

Throughout the evening we watched Kawaguchi change costumes and makeup onstage and witness his body change as he took on each new persona. In The Fetus’ Dream from My Mother Kawaguchi moves around dressed in mostly white and carrying a large pink flower. The movements were jerky, static, and halting; sometimes the character appears melancholic, other times playful.

About Kazuo Ohno - Photo by bozzo
About Kazuo Ohno – Photo by bozzo

In another scene from My Mother we see Kawaguchi dressed in black, moving around joyfully but shyly like a man in search of love. This section is tender, almost heart breaking as we see, and feel, his moments of rejection. In a scene from Dead Sea, Ghost, Wienerwaltz Kawaguchi dresses up like a 17th Century priest and expresses levels of worship, questioning of faith and prostrating himself before his God. There is a beautiful film showing a puppeteer with an extraordinarily beautiful and aged woman. The old woman feels real and moves in the static style of one of Ohno’s female characters.

Following a brief intermission Kawaguchi spends more time performing scenes from Admiring La Argentina which was a tribute to the Spanish dancer Antonia Mercé (1890-1936), known as “La Argentina” and “the Queen of Castanets”. Wearing a pale pink, stylized flamenco dress, Kawaguchi uses abstracted movements from Flamenco dance and hand gestures that hint at playing castanets. His character flirts with the audience and responds with low diva-like bows to recorded thunderous applause.

Takao Kawaguchi - Photo by bozzo
Takao Kawaguchi – Photo by bozzo

During some of the scenes the sound appears to have been recorded during performances by Kazuo Ohno. We hear his feet hit the stage floor, just before Kawaguchi’s make a similar sound, and we often heard coughing from members of his audience. Much of the editing is rough; perhaps due to when it was recorded. We hear Elvis Presley sing “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, and a variety of excerpts from classical music works.

I took time to watch a few videos of Kazuo Ohno performing sections of the works presented on this concert. Ohno was in his seventies when he performed much of this work. Kawaguchi was born in 1962 so the age gap alone causes a definite physical difference in how the two men move. Ohno was improvising many of his characters’ movements, whereas Kawaguchi recreated them movement for movement from videos. This also creates a lack of spontaneity and originality. By his own admission, Kawaguchi’s decision to perform About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving The Butoh Diva was met with controversy in Japan. I applaud him for taking on such a risky project to remind us about Kazuo Ohno’s genius and his part in creating the art form known as Butoh.

Other credits for About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving The Butoh Diva include Dramaturge, Visuals and Sound by Naoto lina, Costumes by Noriko Kitamura and Lighting by Toshio Mizohata (CANTA Ltd). The archival materials were courtesy of Kazuo Ohno dance studio, CANTA Ltd.

 

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Jeff Slayton

Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, “The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber” and “Dancing Toward Sanity”. For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

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