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Takao Kawaguchi’s About Kazuo Ohno: Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces

In About Kazuo Ohno, the Tokyo-based, multimedia performance artist Takao Kawaguchi performs Ohno’s iconic, improvisatory dances, learned verbatim from video recordings of the premiere performances of Admiring La Argentina (1977), My Mother (1981), and Dead Sea, Ghost, Wienerwaltz (1985). In doing so, he knowingly upends tradition in favor of a multimedia approach:

Takao Kawaguchi’s About Kazuo Ohno. Photo: Jaime Shearn Coan.

Sâo Luis Teatro Municipal
June 1-2, 2016

In copying from video recordings that are themselves copies—or perhaps even copies of copies of copies, I work in direct violation of what the Master meant when he said, ‘if there is the heart, the form will follow.’ […] Also rejecting the traditional concept of ‘kata’ or ideal form in Japanese traditional aesthetics, I focus instead on the very tangible forms on the video screen, and wear them as if putting an armor or a costume on my body.1

Kawaguchi was a member of the Kyoto-based artist collective Dumb Type (founded by Teiji Furuhashi in 1984) from 1996 (one year after Furuhashi’s AIDS-related death) to 2008. Fuhurashi, too, eschewed tradition. Responding to a comment in which an interviewer points to evidence of influence of Butoh in his work, he replies:

I don’t agree. In fact, it is almost the opposite. I can’t get into that mysteriously profound butoh atmosphere, that profound look and mood. I am more into how to invent the profound moment with cheap-looking materials and movements from daily life. I know that techno-toys kill the illusion of art and that is why I like them. And my choreography is more influence[d] by people dancing disco.2

Perhaps we could consider the “about” in About Kazuo Ohno in a spatial sense—as an ambulatory, circuitous cruise, over and around and through the revered performer’s work. The second half of the title: Reliving the Butoh Diva’s Masterpiece, engages a campy aesthetic that also asks us to consider Ohno’s work anew in light of its transgression of gender norms. “Diva,” linked to queers via the likes of opera stars and pop singers, strikes a multiple register here—Ohno truly loved performing, and he often did so in a dress.

Standing awkwardly by myself, off to the side of the ponto de encontro (meeting place), for the Alkantara Festival in Lisbon, I’m waiting for a ticket to a show I have been told I would probably get in to. Around me, people sit grouped at tables, smoking, sipping beers and coffee, wearing jackets and blankets to protect them against the chill that descends each evening with the sunset. The ponto de encontro is a modest outdoor snack bar and hangout area sandwiched in between museums and fancy restaurants—basically the back yard of one of the rather grand theaters that serves as a venue for a festival that is international in scope but operating on a very limited budget. I am distracted by some rustling on the other side of a tree, and then I hear what sounds like a small collision. I see someone in shorts and a t-shirt, on roller blades, wearing a motorcycle helmet (closed), and a blue tarp tied around their shoulders like a cape. I immediately guess it is the performer and count my good fortune at getting to see him before the show. Perhaps he is practicing? Doing a warmup?

The strange thing is that no one else seems to care. It appears that he has just flung himself into a pile of boxes. He then advances, precariously, over the cobblestones, constantly about to fall. It seems like a strange warmup to me—with a very high chance for injury. He skates his way over to a bench—occupied by one person and flanked by many bags of trash—and straddles it, his tarp whipping around in the wind. Passersby take him in with some amusement. In the street, he gains the additional challenge of trolley tracks. I follow at a distance—trying to look casual, of course. By now the people at the tables are either looking, or consciously not looking, at the spectacle developing around them. The helmeted figure swings his arms back and forth, passing between cars on the sidewalk. At some point, a cameraman emerges out of thin air and starts following him. This fades the magic somewhat. I run up the countless stairs leading to the theater where the performance is supposed to take place, and look down to see him pressed up against the building as if making himself invisible.

In the lobby, I am directed up the stairs; no one takes my ticket. The performance space is surprisingly modern—a studio, it seems—replete with large windows, stage lights, a small stage, and refurbished wood floors. The ceiling is high and vaulted, and, painted on the far wall, an old general of some sort sits astride a rearing horse, eternally. We sit on the floor against all four walls. Strewn all about is what a person unaccustomed to performance art might refer to as very colorful trash: crumpled paper, a traffic cone, an old bicycle, egg crates, a clear umbrella, a rubber hose, a shopping cart.

Kawaguchi enters once we’ve all settled, still in his stunt-man get-up. The opening bars of a classical piano arrangement roll out into the space. He proceeds to arrange and manipulate everything in sight, moving with precision and sureness through the playground he has assembled. He darts around the space, jumping up on the small stage, pausing for the briefest of moments to imitate the horseman on the wall, stringing a line of polka-dotted triangular flags across the space, pausing to dance a duet with it draped across his arms, a blissful smile on his face. He douses himself in water; he removes his clothes. Writhing on the floor, strategically covered by crumpled paper, he begins to wrap his body. Everything is tucked and absorbed into his ever-growing costume, and then he moves on to assemble a grand headdress, dominated by pink plastic and strawberry-printed fabric. Music from an organ rings out as he perches himself on top of the upturned grocery cart-cum-throne. He picks his way slowly and regally across the space, justifiably illuminated by a spotlight. Approaching the door, he passes through it, and we follow, crowding into the lobby until he disappears. Downstairs again, we’re instructed to show our tickets before entering the theater.

How many beginnings to this show are there? I wonder, walking through the dark wings and finding myself on the stage, which is lined with waiting chairs. How many different shows do I get to see? The range of public and private spaces in which Kawaguchi is performing, in just one night, causes a productive friction—aesthetically and politically. I settle into my seat and look out into a large, empty theater, taking in the historical grandeur of the chandelier hanging down from the distant ceiling, the balcony with its private boxes, the red-turning-pink velvet seats. On the otherwise bare stage rests a clothing rack, full-length mirror, and bench laden with clothes and objects. A narrow screen across the top of the stage projects the title of Kazuo Ohno’s work that we have been witnessing a version of: Admiring La Argentina (1977). Kawaguchi enters, still attired as before and slowly disrobes, eventually carrying off the great pile in his arms. The screen changes to The Dream of the Fetus of My Mother (1991). He walks stiffly towards us, holding a large white paper flower in his hands. There is a recorded sound of wind, a ghostly rustling. He extends the hand holding the flower high above his head.

Over the course of the next (nearly) two hours, Kawaguchi changes into several costumes and guises, ranging from a pair of underwear, to a modern suit, to a white gown, to a nightdress, to white tights and a hat adorned with dozens of tiny flags. The soundtrack, I gradually discern, comes directly from Ohno’s performances. In addition to the music, we hear the recorded thuds and echoes of Ohno’s contact with the floor and props (which Kawaguchi matches or comes incredibly close to matching—breaking the illusion of improvisation and revealing his precision). We hear, as well, Ohno’s audiences—their coughing, their laughter, their applause. As Kawaguchi becomes a mirror figure or surrogate for Ohno, we too are linked to and layered with an audience from another time and place. Our placement on the stage, along with Kawaguchi’s—with the empty theater before us—makes this doubling even more explicit.

Kawaguchi’s performances are extravagant and fully realized—there’s nothing sketch-like about them. He even brings a piano on stage. He takes his time changing, doing his hair, applying makeup. At one point he places a small mirror on the ground and kneels in front of us, slowly transforming his face until he looks like a drag queen, and then stares delightedly into the mirror at his appearance—little bursts of laughter escaping his lips. While Kawaguchi’s body is younger and stronger, a little more earthly than Ohno’s, he captures the deftness and humor that Ohno is known for, and can float his hands through the air with gravity-defying grace.

After a few excerpts, a large screen descends and beings to play a picture into the dark. Elvis Presley’s voice croons that he can’t help falling in love with you3—and what do we see? A small puppet-marionette of Ohno, held up by his son, Yoshito. The combination of the now elegiac love song and the slow and careful manipulation by Yoshito of the Ohno puppet is enough to make me start to cry. It feels like a goodbye, and recalls the fact of Ohno’s death, and the relationship of father and son—the transmission of bloodlines and dance tradition, and the differences, too, between them. Kawaguchi filmed this moving tribute with Yoshito to be part of his performance, adding another layer of engagement with Ohno for us to absorb.

The lights come up after the film for a short intermission and I almost can’t believe that the show will go on, but it does. It is unending; it is almost beyond what my body can bear, but it is also impossible to turn away from. It casts a spell. Kawaguchi maintains his faithful reconstruction through the ovations—a delightful touch, as Ohno was known to treasure his ovations, often continuing to dance, to the point of sometimes not appearing to ever intend to leave the stage. The joy that appears on Kawaguchi’s face at the final (standing, on our part) ovation is contagious—we clap and cheer along with the recorded audience—for Ohno, for ourselves, and for the indefatigable wizardry of Kawaguchi.

Just about everything I know about Kazuo Ohno comes from having assisted with Eiko Otake’s Platform: A Body in Places at Danspace Project last winter. Eiko, along with her partner Koma, studied with Ohno in the early ’70s before they left Japan. She invoked Ohno, via anecdotes, writings and a film screening, over the course of the Platform. In a conversation between Eiko and the contemporary dance-maker Trajal Harrell—initially arranged as part of Harrell’s recent residency at MoMA and continued at Danspace—Harrell explained his initial engagement with Ohno’s work and the methodology for his consequent investigation:

There was a structural section in the piece that I felt connected to my work because I felt that Ohno was voguing La Argentina. Therefore, I could be voguing him voguing someone else. When I got to the place in the research where I wanted to look at the tape of Ohno dancing the piece, which I resisted for some time because I want to work in my imagination, I was stunned by his dancing. This man was the most beautiful dancer. I remember sitting there going, “Wow, how did I miss this?”4

Harrell’s practice leans toward the fictive and imaginary, whereas Kawaguchi’s is closer to the archival and the copy. And yet, Harrell expresses surprise at his interest in the archives themselves, and Kawaguchi, in the course of his practice of learning Ohno’s movements directly from taped performances, begins to see the instability of the archive and experience the pull of the imaginary.

Usually characterized as largely improvisational, Ohno’s dance is unique not only for his age but also for the distinctive features of his body and movements, which are essential to his dance. An attempt to copy his dance as it is, no more no less, means nothing but to suspend whatever interpretation the copier may have as well as his own beliefs, and to project himself onto the forms and shapes of the old dancer as exactly as possible. The closer it gets, however, the clearer the gap becomes […] The paradox here is that this very gap, nonetheless, highlights the very distinct characteristics of the copier. Copy is original.5

Both Harrell and Kawaguchi, from different subject positions and with different tools, reactivate Ohno’s work through their queer bodies, engaging associations with trans and gender nonconforming identities, drag culture, and voguing.

Over a dinner in Lisbon that consisted of whole fishes and white wine, Kawaguchi talked to me about gay visibility in Japan. In addition to working as a body-based artist, Kawaguchi served as the director of the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival from 1996 to 1998. He also translated the outspoken British filmmaker, writer, and AIDS activist Derek Jarman’s final book, Chroma, into Japanese. We spoke about the AIDS Crisis in the U.S. and HIV/AIDS discourse in Japan during the same period, and Kawaguchi told me to look into the work and legacy of Teiji Furuhashi, who had been out about living with AIDS and made work about it.

Recently, I learned of the show currently up at MoMA: Teiji Furuhashi: Lovers, a multimedia installation (through February 12, 2017) that interacts with the bodily presence of spectators. I wrote to Kawaguchi to make sure that this was the artist he had told me about. He wrote back immediately and emphatically that it was imperative to see this historic show and that we must get as many people as possible to do so. So I extend that imperative to you, reader, with the added request that you attend the New York premiere of Kawaguchi’s show About Kazuo Ohno, at the Japan Society on September 16 and 17.6

The activation of archives through live performance reminds us that archives are not any more static than we are. Who is to say what is a beginning and what is an end?


  1. Takao Kawaguchi (2106), “Artist Statement.”
  2. Carol Lufty (1995), Interview with Teiji Furuhashi, Performance artist, Kyoto.” Assembly International.
  3. Kawaguchi told me that this was one of Ohno’s favorite songs.
  4. Eds. Judy Hussie-Taylor and Lydia Bell. Platform 2016: A Body in Places. New York: Danspace Project (2016), 111.
  5. Takao Kawaguchi (2016), “Artist Statement.”
  6. There will also be a screening of films related to Kazuo Ohno and a movement workshop: Body Sculpting, led by Kawaguchi.


Jaime Shearn Coan

Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2016

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