by Nicole Wolverton
In the pantheon of high school gym teachers, Kazuo Ohno was special. Most of us probably remember gym teachers who excelled at pitting kids against each other in their own private Hunger Games, but with dodge balls instead of bows and arrows. Ohno was more interested in avant garde performance art—he was one of the developers of the Japanese dance movement known as butoh. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts describes this style as a “reaction in part to the horrors of the World War II” that incorporates “elements of existentialism, surrealism, German expressionism, kabuki theatre and eastern spiritual thought.”
Ohno, born in 1906, was born in rural Japan. His journey as a dancer began in college: he took his first classes after seeing a performance by Spanish modernist Antonia Merce in 1929. Following graduation, Ohno taught dance and physical education at a high school in Yokohama; he also began training with Japanese modern-dance pioneers Baku Ishii and Takaya Eguch.
The outbreak of war interrupted that training. Ohno was drafted into the Japanese Army in 1936—the start of World War II—when he was 32. Details are vague about his wartime service, except that he served for nine years, including one year as a prisoner of war in New Guinea. Ohno resumed his study in 1946, when he turned 40, experimenting with the juxtaposition of movement and emotion. Ohno performed his first solo recital when he was 43, a piece called “Jellyfish Dance.” He choreographed it himself, basing it on something he witnessed during his military service—dead soldiers thrown overboard into jellyfish-infested seas. Shortly thereafter he met Tatsumi Hijikata, widely considered to be the founder of butoh. Their collaborations developed butoh into the form we know today and catapulted Ohno to international status in the dance world.
Kuzuo Ohno not only bloomed as a dancer after the age of 40, he made performance a critical part of getting older; and he created performances that explored the boundaries between life and death. He continued to choreograph and perform publicly long after many dancers retire. At 93, he gave his last performance outside Japan; his last performance in Japan occurred when he was 101. The body as a perfected form is not important in butoh, and Ohno used his aging body as a symbol, sometimes crawling across the stage or bound in a wheelchair.
Ohno died in 2010 at the age of 103.