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Ogamo Rebecca Teele is a Noh actress, mask carver, translator and scholar; she is the coordinator of the International Noh Institute, led by Noh Master-Actor Udaka Michishige. It is also thanks to Rebecca-sensei’s efforts to pursue the way of Noh that I have been able to begin my journey through this art.

I am copying here the full text of the interview that appeared on the Yomiuri Shimbun (Feb. 6, 2011).

Wedded to her art, noh two ways about it.
Yoshihiro Kitaura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

KYOTO–Face-to-face at a rehearsal hall at the foot of Mt. Hiei in Kyoto, the elder U.S. teacher and her Australian pupil bowed and engaged in a traditional “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (thank you for your support).

The teacher, noh actress Ribekka Ogamo, then began demonstrating a model performance, moving and lowering her center of gravity as if skating across some ice. She then coaxed her student into dancing more slowly and expressively.

Ogamo, 61, whose real name is Rebecca Teele, has described noh as having ongoing inspiration on her life. She has been learning noh for 39 years under the tutelage of Master-Actor Michishige Udaka, 63, a professional noh actor of the Kongo school. Udaka has much praise for Teele, saying, “She is good at noh chants and her performance is also solid.”

Born in Michigan, Teele first encountered noh as a child in Japan, at a performance she went to with her father who was then teaching at a university in Kansai.

Teele was mesmerized by the scene facing her when she woke from a nap. Orotund noh chants, emotive noh masks and the subtle rustling of long skirts all contributed to a profound atmosphere on stage that left an indelible impression on the young girl.

Teele, who later returned to the United States and graduated from high school there, majored in theater at a U.S. university. She thought while Western theater called on actors to possess certain physical charms, including a modicum of attractiveness, the noh she knew from Japan instead emphasized people’s spirituality. She thought she would be able to explore this theatrical expression, which she felt lacking in Western theater, by performing noh.

As her obsession grew, she again visited Japan and observed many noh performances. Fascinated with the beauty of the works staged by the Kongo school, Teele decided in 1972 to become Udaka’s pupil, as he had previously accepted foreign students.

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Becoming Udaka’s pupil

Despite being accepted into the Udaka school, Teele faced much difficulty. First, she had to practice sitting seiza-style on her heels. She had no difficulty speaking conversational Japanese but it was a challenge to understand the noh chants written in classical Japanese.

Yet Teele was determined to succeed. Consulting her dictionary, she slowly made her way through many noh works. She also practiced the requisite chants in a loud voice at a riverside in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, swimming helped Teele developed a physique better suited to the art form and she eventually conquered movements such as how to shuffle properly. She was making her living working at an English conversation school and translating, but Teele was completely devoted to noh.

Teele’s journey to become a noh master took nine years. Upon being admitted to join the Nohgaku Kyokai association–itself an unusual move–she identified herself as noh actor Ribekka Ogamo.

“[Teele’s membership] has inspired Japanese disciples,” Udaka said.

Teele, who also serves as secretariat chief of the International Noh Institute, a body comprising of overseas noh students among others, now herself teaches foreign students, her efforts a testament of her devotion to the art form.

The work is not without its challenges. The quality of a noh performance depends not only on the actors’ expertise in traditional dances and chants but also how the noh masks are displayed to the audience.

The significance of these principles is not always understood among beginner pupils hailing from overseas. According to Teele, she was once asked by a non-Japanese student whether it was acceptable to make small changes to the basic style of noh dancing.

Teele also recalled a pupil from South America unable to imagine snow. On such occasions, Teele would advise the students to visit temples and shrines in Kyoto and look at pictures on display depicting the four seasons.

In spite of the fact that many foreigners visit Japan to learn noh just like she did many years ago, Teele is disappointed their Japanese peers seem uninterested in learning the traditional art.

In June last year, Teele took part in a performance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Udaka’s stage career. She played the main role in the program “Yuki” (snow), a snow spirit that dances in the moonlight for about one hour.

The performance was even more remarkable as Teele danced while enduring severe pain in her left knee. She had fallen down some station stairs six months earlier and injured the knee, which had already been broken once before. The accident prevented Teele from rehearsing enough before the performance.

“You should improve your dancing so that the noh mask becomes more expressive,” Udaka commented following her performance. His uncompromising attitude toward the art made Teele even more determined.

Teele has one unrealized dream: To perform noh in the United States. She hopes to fulfill this by almost any means possible, her will unchanged from when she first decided years ago to devote herself to noh.

(Feb. 6, 2011)

Pictures of her performance of Yuki, mentioned in the articles, can be seen here.

Pictures of her previous performance, Nonomiya (2007) can be seen here.

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