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Dancing deep questions about life through Butoh

A white-faced woman in an old white satin cape, dress, and leggings totters toward us to the strains of a Strauss waltz. She steps on the cape, her wig shifts, and her high heels give her trouble, but she waves to the music with a look of extravagant joy. She's slightly humorous, a little grotesque; a Kabuki version of Dickens's Miss Havisham. ``She'' is the Japanese male dancer Kazuo Ohno, who is performing his ``The Dead Sea: Vienna Waltz and Ghost.'' Ohno is one of the founders of Butoh, a postwar Ja panese dance aesthetic. Tatsumi Hijikata, the main progenitor of Butoh, was Ohno's student, and together they developed it in the late 1950s and early '60s, turning away from traditional modern dance forms to look inward. The movement can be awkward or like that of animals and lower forms of life, expressing their feeling that dance ``existed at the beginning of life, before music and machines,'' as Mr. Ohno's translator put it at a press conference. Ohno says he is exploring birth and creation, but his dance bring s up images of death and destruction to do so. He and Kuniko Kisanuki, a young woman voted dancer of the year in Japan, presented Butoh from their individual perspectives in alternating concerts last week at the Joyce Theater here.

Both were on voyages of discovery. Ohno traveled through time and space in halting steps. Kisanuki explored locomotion itself, staring at her legs as she dangled them above her, later struggling to lift her head from the floor as a baby would, evolving into a hopping frog and finally spinning upright. Both cultivated awkwardness. Kisanuki moved against her joints, twisting her arms and walking on turned-in legs. Dancing the part of ``a middle-aged woman walking toward her death'' as the program describe d it, Kazuo Ohno cringed, hung his head, and walked on the outsides of his feet. Oddly, there was a feeling of joy as Ohno moved toward us, and in Kisanuki's dancing when she threw herself down and sprang up again.

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Ohno used his crimped posture as a foil for his character's eagerness to greet us. There were tedious moments in his 90-minute performance. But it was surprising how few they were. All he did was pass back and forth before us in different guises. But he seemed to be both constantly approaching and traveling great distances. The space he moved through was transformed by lighting and sound changes. A recording of voices chanting and singing the Great Litany in the Orthodox Church of Osaka was followed by the roar of an explosion. Both sounds were magnificent, so powerful they became his landscape. Yoshito Ohno, his son, powdered white and dressed in white robes, moved through as quietly as a sigh, serving as an entr'acte.

The ghostly figure and the alternation of music with explosions brought up the idea of death by nuclear war. But even though Ohno looked like a dry husk hidden in his silks, his character was very much alive. She clasped her hands to the music as if transported, but her response to the explosion was equally joyful, as if she were too innocent to be afraid.

As she minced amid the tumult, even when she seemed to be a tiresome hag, I found myself hoping fervently that she would survive. Through this character, Ohno asks deep questions about life. She jiggled a dance, barely distinguishable from her trembling gait, a travesty of what one expects from a dance concert. But she had grace and pathos. Ohno made me ask myself -- not rhetorically -- how I could ever live without joy and music.

Finally, the waltz was played again and Ohno appeared in a tuxedo, more animated than before. He permitted himself to trip lightly across the stage, and raised his arms to the music as if to embrace it. An attendant pinned a butterfly in his hair and put a scarf around his neck, suggesting that the old-lady character was still with us.

After taking many bows, Ohno patted the stage and kissed the proscenium arch as he left. Kisanuki did a dance of thanks after she received flowers. The joy they took in performing and questioning had also enlivened the dark moments of their concerts.

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