19 February 2014
A contemporary homage: a conversation with Takao Kawaguchi
© Dominique Baron-Bonarjee 2014
Interview date: 4 November 2013
Who is Takao Kawaguchi?
Born in Kyushu, Japan in 1962. From 1991 to 1995 he, together with Atsuko Yoshifuku, established and lead the independent dance group ATA Dance. In 1996, he joined the Japanese multimedia performance company Dumb Type and participated in the creation and tours of “OR“, “memorandum” and “Voyage“. He has also been active in independent solo projects since 2000. Read more >>
The ‘homage’ seems a popular form in Japan: a strange mix of imitation, admiration and a certain perceived benchmark of technique in some cases. Kazuo Ohno himself performed one of the most famous homages when he created ‘Admiring La Argentina’ and premiered it when he was well into his 70s: dressed as a woman (‘drag’ it is not, but closer to the tradition of the onnagata) he recreated gestures and movements, but what appeared was not a Spanish dance. I saw an extract of this performance at the V&A Museum’s ‘Postmodern’ exhibition in 2011 and this encounter in a dark room populated by the likes of Grace Jones, Talking Heads and Klaus Nomi, made me more determined than ever to delve deeper into the performing body in Japan.
In 2012 one of my fellow dancers from Yoshito Ohno’s workshops presented a dance piece where she recreated the same look, costume and movements as our teacher Yoshito-sensei. I had difficulty in understanding the value of such a performance outside of the context of theory, and examining my resistance to this form I resolved to explore the homage as a method of research.
It’s around this time that I encountered (24 October 2013) Takao Kawaguchi’s ‘About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving the Butoh Master’s Masterpieces’ at the Kazuo Ohno Festival held at BankART in Yokohama. I could already sense ‘judgement’ fomenting in my mind: what would he do…copy? Try to be Kazuo Ohno? Try to recreate that ‘magical essence’ Kazuo seems to be so famed for?
Then Kawaguchi appeared, riding a bicycle through the hallway of BankART, a motorbike helmet on and a blue tarpaulin sheet as a cape on his back. This first glimpse displaced me: my thoughts turned to ‘the homage as a device to frame time’, ‘the homage as a way to investigate contemporaneity’, and I entered Takao’s ‘chronotopic’ journey into the body of Kazuo Ohno.
On a beautiful sunny 4th November, a public holiday in Japan, I met Takao Kawaguchi in Aoyama, we whiled away about 2 hours over glasses of wine and some inspiring conversation about Kazuo Ohno and what ‘contemporary’ means:
Dominique Baron-Bonarjee: I watched your performance ‘Kazuo Ohno’ at the Kazuo Ohno Festival recently and your prelude to the actual performance really intrigued me. Through it I felt you created a passage for both yourself and the audience to erase/attenuate expectations and intellectual judgement and to invite us into a space where you could become the ‘medium’ for these performances. The attitude that some people have towards Kazuo Ohno and his dances, which are so personal, could make your performance proposition immediately exposed to comparison and criticism. For me it was almost a sort of hypnosis. When I walked into your performance ‘Kazuo Ohno’, I had these first thoughts of comparison, of why were you doing this, what was I going to find, so I was surprised that the performance started like that, with you on a bicycle with a blue tarpaulin wrapped around you and then I was thinking, “I know you’re a performance artist, so you want to bring contemporary references into it…” I was following you in that space, not totally engaged by what was going on, thinking I’ve seen this before, that kind of feeling. Then something changed, you picked up my umbrella actually…
Takao Kawaguchi: Oh yes I passed that place 2 or 3 times and I thought “I must use this somehow”
DBB: So it continued and I was vaguely following, watching and then there was some point where I really felt like I was both bored and hypnotised. Somehow through what you were doing, this ‘judgement’ that I’d felt at the beginning had been suspended in some way. Then you created this very strong image of this… I’ll call it an ‘ambulante’, it reminded me of Francis Alys’ photo series in Mexico City of people carrying many things on top of them, street vendors etc. It’s a fascinating image and somehow you created that image in an organic way. I didn’t see it coming and suddenly, there it was. That beginning became a catalyst into ‘Homage to Kazuo Ohno’. Can you tell me more about what your intentions were in this opening?
TK: Did you see the film ‘The Portrait of Mr O’?
TK: Kazuo O. created it with Chiaki Nagano, the film maker. He did 3 films, prior to 1977, when he did his (re-)debut with ‘La Argentina’. During the 10 years before La Argentina, he danced for various people but he didn’t do his own solos. (With Nagano), he did an inner exploration of his own dance, going to the forest once a month, going to places and he touched objects, he played with these objects. He really did all sorts of weird things. And I thought that was a very important thing for him in order for him to come up with the things he did in his dance life… So I wanted to do something like this. Of course I cannot really copy the film, it would be a little bit difficult, but I wanted to take… I wouldn’t say the essence, I took sort of the idea of it. That’s something I wanted to do, so I left that opening really random and spontaneous. Of course I had a few things set and prepared, so that’s what I used to help me and to go into ‘La Argentina’ and Divine (the character from Jean Genet’s novel ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’: Divine is an old male prostitute who goes really badly and dies in shit and mud, etc.) And Ohno, what he does is, he dresses very impeccably, beautifully with his hats and dresses, I wanted to twist that a little bit.
DBB: So you used this as the passage to get into ‘La Argentina’?
TK: Yes. And I interviewed several people in the creation process and one said, Ohno was very spontaneous in grabbing things and just starting to dance with them, like pots and pans, making noises, or he grabs a rope and puts it up and starts hanging stuff. And he would really go into it, and that energy would push him from one state of being to another and I think he got inspired and he would jump into the dancing. Uesugi (Mitsuyo), she’s the one who told me that and she said the scene that best represents Kazuo Ohno, who he is, is the scene from ‘The Portrait of Mr O’ in which there are flags of all the countries of the world, there’s a little tiny scene in the mountain in the forest where these flags are hung. I remember that scene and I thought that’s something I could. So I borrowed that idea for the bunting part do [TK hangs bunting in the prologue to ‘Homage to Kazuo Ohno’]
DBB: Yes that bunting almost looked like bandages rather than a celebration.
TK: The beginning sections are actually inspired by that film and the episodes that I heard about Kazuo Ohno and the spontaneity. Spontaneity was really important. In August, one week before the premiere, I did a run-through in the Arts University in Tokyo. There they had a space and it was a dump, there was lots of stuff, it was used as a cafeteria as well so many students hang out there. I decided to do a full run through and to do this (opening) scene. It went well and we took all the stuff, the junk, from that space and used it in the actual performance.
DBB: But you were improvising with the objects right. With your choice of objects, did you have any ideas or references within them?
TK; Sure, I had vague links but I didn’t really…well I didn’t write a thesis about it. I left it open as Kazuo does and of course I have watched a lot of performances, a lot of contemporary art and of course when I see the object and I see my way with it, then maybe I recognise something.
DBB: Maybe I saw Banksy in your banana water pistol. Did you think of the way the audience would read these actions or what you were trying to create through them?
TK: There were two objectives: one, I simply wanted to cleanse myself. I told myself, ‘don’t try to create a wonderful scene, don’t try to be big, if you fail to create this scene, it’s ok, just do, and calm down, don’t hurry, don’t try too hard, don’t sweat…just be there, and open’, for me to be with the flow, the moment, the people…
This interview is no longer available online