Walking up the little hill in Yokohama to reach the studio my Sunday-workshop takes place at, I have to pass a bamboo forest. On sunny days, which are common here in Japan, it looks nicely illuminated, showing all the different shades of brown and green it has to offer. Towards the centre the forest turns extremely dark, but I am still able to see the many rows of bamboo trunks, that appear almost artificially organized. From here I have to walk a few meters straight and turn right at the massive orange tree, one of the landmarks I desperately need to survive here in Japan and find back the places I have been before. Soon a discrete sign will appear on my right hand, saying “Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio”, I believe the only sign in this neighbourhood that provides an English translation for the Kanji words. The sign leads to the – with childish mosaic patterns cheerfully decorated – path, I have to take in order to reach the studio. The second path leads to Yoshito Ohno’s house. It used to belong to Kazuo Ohno, one of the two establishers of butoh dance. Out of different parts and materials that belonged to an old, and now fully deconstructed, elementary school, Kazuo Ohno had the first butoh dance studio built on this piece of lands, where he and Hijikata Tatsumi would practice and philosophize about what authentic Japanese, dance, but most importantly about what the body is. The studio has a 50 years old history. Big artists like Pina Bausch and Peter Brook visited the studio to talk and practice with these two Japanese dancers, who offered new insights about dance and how to approach the body. Ever since Kazuo Ohno died, at the age of 103, his sun Yoshito stepped into his footsteps and teaches students that come to this place to learn about butoh dance.
I never felt this way before about meeting a person. I can honestly and sincerely say that I feel deeply honoured and privileged to meet Yoshito sensei. Yoshito is 74 years old by now. When I saw him for the first time, his tranquillity and wisdom dominated my first impression. Then, when he starts teaching, he turns into a jumpy, monkey-like little man, who is able to spread and share his seemingly never-ending energy. He also has this saint-like appearance that has often been ascribed to his father. In his classes he constantly talks about Kazuo and Hijikata and the way they would discuss their visions on the world, god and the body. He frequently imitates both of their, very contrasting, ways of dancing. Especially when referring to Kazuo Ohno, but also when illustrating a certain feeling or quality, we should aim to put in our dance, he makes this releasing and at the same time theatrical “aaaah” noise.
My first assessment in Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio is to “dance with Bamboo”. Everybody (about 10 people are attending the workshop) receives a long bamboo stick that almost reaches the high ceiling. Yoshito first explains to us the deep and many-sided relationship between bamboo and Japanese culture. He shows us a book of one of the first Japanese fairy-tales “Kaguya Hime”. The narrative stems from the 10th century and tells the story of a bamboo-cutter who finds a little princess after he cuts open a glowing stalk of bamboo. Having a “personality like bamboo” is, especially when referring to (gentle) men, an honourable and pursuable characteristic. It signifies at ones strengths and sensitivity. A bamboo stalk is strong and indestructible at its base and roots, but delicate and soft at its very upper ends. A traditional Japanese play among kids is the “bamboo horse” in which bamboo stalks are used as long stilts. To emphasise a very sustainable and strong friendship the Japanese phrase for “we know each other from playing with bamboo” can be used. Maybe the most important characteristic of bamboo, as an inspiration for dance, is its hollowness, its emptiness.
Instantly, it may not seem as something desirable; to be empty. When I go watch a performance, is what I want to see emptiness? In butoh it is argued however, that only when a dancer is totally empty, he/she can be filled with an image, emotion or with the viewer’s own narrative or feeling. In short; the dancer’s empty body becomes the viewer’s body. Only then can a performance evoke experience, which is, in butoh, the most important affect a dancer can have on his/her audience, rather than playing a role or telling a story. “We don’t want to show something”, Yoshito frequently reminds us. “We want to touch something”.
Having an empty body situates the dancer in a certain body-mind state, a necessary condition to be able to dance butoh. You dance not only with bamboo, you dance bamboo. You and the bamboo are situated in a liminal space in which only a few life-qualities exist. At your base you are strong and rooted and looking down through the soles of your feet, you only see darkness; underground. Your strong base makes it possible for you to grow infinitely far up. It is because of your emptiness that you are able to grow so high, so that you actually do not know how far you reach. You only know that up there, at your very top, there is lightness, fresh air and delicacy. You necessarily are aware of the space surrounding you, as without space, you would not be able to spread you roots and gain your strength. Dancing this dance, of which the essence is basically going up and down, holding the bamboo stalk between your hands, you may transfer any feeling present within your body to the outside of the body. You even may dedicate this dance to someone. (Yoshito plays a version of “Holy Night” sang by an Afro-American singer in times of harsh discrimination.) It is not about expressing an emotion however. Everybody carries his/her own weight, experiences and emotions. That is why every individual butoh dancer dances his/her own butoh. It is difficult to grasp, or at least to put into words, this contradictory state of emptiness at the one hand, and transferring feeling from the inside to the outside at the other. In fact, instead of being contradicting, these two qualities mutually depend on each other. One might compare it to iron, leading warmth. The iron itself does not tell us anything and its warmth is just a contemporary quality, but does not belong to the iron’s own characteristics. The iron has no significance. However, by touching the iron, or by being touched by it, we feel the heat. We feel it ourselves, with our own bodies.
Natsu Nakajima, my other teacher in Tokyo, explained to me that in the West, what we look at when watching a performance are “dancing humans”. In oriental dance, especially in Japanese dance and specifically in butoh, “we want to deny our humanity”. “The body is not your body. It is material.”
I have been trying to remind myself to the bamboo-way-of-being in my daily life as well. As Yoshito emphasises: “You do not learn butoh in the studio.” You learn it when doing the dishes, standing at a (in Japan extremely long-lasting) red pedestrian light or in an overfilled train. I may be fetching far at this point, but I have been feeling that my daily-life posture is becoming a little bit more Japanese. Japanese people do not lean against the wall, they do not cross their legs when sitting in the train and they do not verge towards one site when waiting for the traffic lights. Their posture is centred and upright and their distance to others is modest but sufficient: like stalks, growing naturally lined up, strong and straight in an endless bamboo forest.