FILM Kazuo Ohno, who died this past June at 103, probably received the broadest exposure of his long career when Antony and the Johnsons chose Naoya Ikegami's black and white Ohno portrait as the cover art for their 2009 album The Crying Light. Shot in profile, wearing a black dress with a cluster of white flowers pinned in his hair, the visibly aged Ohno — his head tilted back, mouth slightly agape, and hands thrust forward like twisted branches — appears frozen somewhere between ecstasy and his last breath.
The image captures something of the powerful ambiguity of Ohno's solo performances, in which he frequently embodied female characters. Beneath the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pancake makeup and vintage rags, Ohno — one of the founders of the postwar Japanese dance-theater form butoh — could still convey great tenderness as well as sorrow, and that it was possible to laugh in the dark while struggling through it. It is Ohno's undeniable humanism that courses through Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' retrospective of films documenting his life and practice, with an accompanying performance run by acclaimed butoh troupe Sankai Juku.
Known for its evocations of darkness and decay, butoh came about as an artistic response to the horrors of the World War II, horrors Ohno had experienced first-hand when he was held for two years as a prisoner of war in China and New Guinea while serving as an intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. Ohno's first solo performance, Jellyfish Dance, given in Tokyo in 1949, was a reflection on the burials at sea he witnessed on board a vessel bearing captives to be repatriated to Japan. Ohno was 43 years old.
In the audience that night was the much younger artist Tatsumi Hijikata, who was entranced by Ohno's performance. The two spent the next several years developing what was to become known as Ankoku Butoh-ha, "the dance of darkness." Although Hijikata choreographed many of Ohno's performances from the 1960s on, he became known for his grotesque and boundary-pushing performance style, whereas Ohno developed a more introspective, sometimes even delicate approach.
Ohno was born on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. His life changed in 1926 when, while still a student at the prestigious Japan Athletic College in Tokyo, he attended a performance by the Argentinean flamenco dancer Antonia Mercé, who would become the subject of his 1977 magnum opus Admiring La Argentina. Soon after he began to study with the modern dance pioneers Baku Ishii and Takaya Eguchi, while teaching physical education at a private Christian school in Yokohama — a position he held until the 1970s when he momentarily retired from public performance.