Performing what does not belong


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On Monday 28th March I attended Dr. Matthew Cohen‘s performance A Dalang in Search of Wayang at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London. Besides his many achievements as an academic, Matthew is a trained dalang or puppeteer of the wayang kulit tradition of Java. Matthew’s piece is a fascinating act between puppetry, stand-up (in this case ‘sit-down’) comedy, and philosophic research, in which Matthew as dalang, in a semi-schizophrenic dialogue with his own puppets, and with the audience, questions himself about the how, the why, and the what it is to perform a tradition of a far-away place to an audience that does not belong to the same cultural territory of that tradition.

Matthew’s performance is certainly inspiring for people like myself, who live this condition of cultural displacement as feature of their everyday life. The questions that the performance raised are indeed pointing straight to the meaning of our lives as performers and scholars across the borders. Rather than discussing themes of universality and interculturality in general terms, Matthew’s endeavour is an intimate, but frank reflection not just on the effectiveness or possibility, but on the very meaning of performing an ‘other’ performance tradition abroad.

Matthew’s questions are something I can very much sympathise with. Many times I found myself confronting audiences that knew nothing of Japan (let alone of Noh) besides geishas and sushi. The frustration of incommunicability, and a slight sense of superiority that derives from the thought of how much your efforts would be appreciated somewhere else, are sometimes difficult to bear. An audience that cannot understand the language, the symbolism, the dramatic devices of performance is an element of extraordinary resistance to what the performers tries to do. It needs to be instructed, nurtured, taken care of. By doing this, I sometimes wonder if we are not trying to transform this audience into something familiar to us, bringing it with our sphere of confidence. What does this mean, then? Is this an act of covert manipulation of the audience’s identity? Are we trying to create a bush league of our beloved and indulging original audience? Or, conversely, do we not realise that this ‘ignorant’ audience is the most indulging one, while informed ‘authentic’ audience would just kick our asses because or our poor skills?

There are profound ethical questions embedded in the reflection that Matthew put in the form of a much enjoyable comic act. To what extent can we call the tradition we are dedicating our life to ‘ours’? How can we then pretend to be ‘cultural ambassadors’ of something which does not really belong us, and why in the world should we fight against the resistance of an audience that can sometimes hardly hear us, if what we fight for does not belong us? Much intercultural scholarship has attested that we ‘Westerners’ cannot appropriate ‘Asian’ art and expect it to be ours, and I think this is fair enough, especially when one sees this concept in a larger scale political and economic frame. However, I would lie if I said that Noh ‘does not belong to me’, or that I am just ‘borrowing it for a couple of hours’ for my little demonstration. I’m sorry – I don’t sell post-cards.

There are ways to be more or less transparent in the way we undertake this act of moving culture across borders. What I was particularly pleased with in Matthew’s piece was the honesty of his presence. Dressed in a traditional cloth as a skirt, but wearing a trunk shirt on the top, Matthew did not pretend to hide what cannot be hidden (his not being a son of the land that gave birth to the tales he tells through wayang), and went about his performance in a constant dialogue with himself, and with the others who were watching him, without exposing the exoticism of Java. Rather than stating, Matthew was asking. One of the dangers of tradition is immobility, petrification of the form as petrification of the mind. It is thanks to unorthodoxy and disturbance that tradition can find stimuli for renovation. And yet there are ways to poke the boundaries of tradition without necessarily destroying it, or subverting its order – as long as questions like Matthew’s keep on being asked, and our many ‘others’ keep on listening.

Polish – Japanese Noh diplomacy: Chopin and ‘The Piano Tuner’


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Inter-cultural theatre plays involving Noh and other performance forms are not mere artistic endeavours, but acts with strong political relevance.

This seems to be the case of The Piano Tuner (in Polish ‘Stroiciel fortepianu‘), a Noh play written by Jadwiga Maria Rodowicz who is (at once) a Japanese Noh scholar, the ambassador of Poland in Japan, and was a long-time member of the famous experimental Polish theatre group Gardzienice. The combination of these three elements contains an east/centre/west triad that marks the sign of the times. Claudel was ambassador of France in Japan for six years, at a time when being ambassador did not require knowing Japanese culture.. or even Japanese language! The influence of Japanese theatre in its work has been long studied, yet Noh does not seem to have revolutionised his conception of theatre. Many Western theatre practitioners (including Grotowski, of whom Gardzienice’s leader Staniewski was a disciple) claim influence of Noh in their production… yet we can hardly find Noh specialists among them.

I have not seen The Piano Tuner yet but certainly its premises are much alluring. It is not clear what the non-Noh elements will be (besides piano and costumes), but the plot and the characters clearly reveal the attempt to make interculturalism the main theme of this play.

Below is an extract from the original article, to be found here:

Warsaw’s Witkiewicz Studio Theatre hosts the premiere of the first ever Polish Noh production – a major form ofJapanese classical dance theatre – performed by the legendary Tessenkai Theatre Company from Tokyo

Jadwiga Maria Rodowicz, a well-known Orientalist specialising in the history of Japanese drama and theatre aesthetics, is responsible for the drama’s text, entitled “The Piano Tuner”. Since 2008 Rodowicz has been Polish ambassador to Japan, and from 1979-89 she was a leading member of the acclaimed “Gardzienice” theatre group.

The drama plots a symbolic meeting between two renowned artist friends in the enchanted garden at Nohant, namely Fryderyk Chopin and Eugène Delacroix. Having grown weary of Paris, the ageing Delacroix pays a visit to Nohant. In a strange vision he encounters Chopin, with whom he is able to engage in masterful debates about art, music and Chopin’s own attempts to mediate between his Polish and French identities…

Chopin-Noh Project calendar of events:

  • Premiere of ‘The Piano Tuner’ – three performances on February 17, 18 & 19 at 19:00, at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre in Warsaw
  • Promotion of Jadwiga Rodowicz’s new book ‘Boski Dwumian’ (jointly curated by the Jerzy Grotowski Institute) – 17:00 on February17 at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre
  • Theatre workshop (open to the public) given by members of the Tessenkai Theatre Company – from 13:00 – 15:00 on February 19 and again from 11:00 – 13:00 on February 20 at the Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy, ul. Miodowa 22/24
  • Partial performance of “The Piano Tuner” in the nave of the Holy Cross Church (ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 3) on February 20 at 13:50.
  • Repost: Interview with Ogamo Rebecca Teele


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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.


    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)

    Continue reading

    Noh thriller movie – 天河伝説殺人事件


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    Back from Japan and heavily jet-lagged as usual, I was wandering the many Noh-related blog pages when I bumped into 天河伝説殺人事件 (Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) a 1991 thriller by Ichikawa Kon, the director of The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad and many other legendary films. 天河伝説殺人事件 looks like a standard 80s old-school detective story with the surprising twist of being centred upon homicides related to Noh theatre. I haven’t seen the movie myself but I am about to make an order to where they seem to have DVD copies of it. It just looks very cool – the retro-sound score, the ossan hat of the protagonist, the terrible オーバー acting technique of the actors… and on top of it, it’s Ichikawa! The review of the All Movie Guide has been published on the New York Times here. Googling a bit I found the trailer uploaded on YouTube.

    Grilled Utai


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    The other day I’ve been to this place in Kyoto where you
    can eat all sorts of grilled food. Apart from the smoke and the
    smell of barbecue that will oblige you to wash everything you wore
    on that day, the food is pretty good and the staff nice and
    friendly. I had scallop, squid and pumpkin – all grilled with real
    wood fire. You have a choice of having whatever you order grilled
    by the chef or to grill it yourself on small bracers with burning
    embers inside. This is where the
    surprise came. The bracers are decorated with paper taken from Noh
    utaibon (謡本), or Noh chant libretti. Mine had
    Makurajido (枕慈童, aka 菊慈童) on. I was lucky
    enough to be given an utai I already practiced, which was easy to
    recognise. However, I realised
    it is common practice to use paper from various traditional books
    (with printed handwriting) on bracers. This is from the
    advertisement of one of the many restaurants specialised in crab.

    I find this custom rather interesting,
    although a bit inappropriate, maybe.

    New Year



    This year I am spending my first new year period (お正月) in Kyoto. Although the temperatures seemed to be slightly higher than London (recently hit by a blizzard that seriously threatened my departure by having Heathrow and Gatwick shut for a few days), I reached Kyoto once the weather changed here too. We had rain, cold winds, snow and all that comes with the rigours of winter.

    One of the most interesting events so far has been the New Year’s performance of Okina at Yasaka-Jinja in Kyoto on January 3rd (the shite was the Kongoh iemoto, Kongoh Hisanori). The New Year is probably the most important festivity of the year in Japan, and people use to pay their visit Shinto shrines (but actually Buddhist temples, too) for what is called 初詣, or ‘first pilgrimage’. Okina is a special performance that does not belong to the 5 ‘regular’ categories, but it is considered a sort of primal performance, although several critics see it as a form of ‘invented tradition’ part of the programme of national resurrection that began during the mid/late Meiji period. Despite philological speculation (with which I anyway concur), I have to admit Okina possesses an ancestral charm to which I unwillingly fall victim… as we say in Italian: ‘l’importante e’ crederci!’


    Japanese Expat Dancer carves her masks



    I know very little of Yayoi Hirano’s work but I found this interesting clip on YouTube which, in its brevity and simplicity, reveals the most basic issues of exportation of traditional Japanese theatre to the West, and hints at some of the most common reasons for contemporary artists who seek refuge from traditional regimentation elsewhere.

    I am unsure of the quality of the work here shown, but I would like to invite anyone in the Noh to check her description of the O-Kasshiki mask toward the end of the clip.



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    From: 善知鳥神社website


    この善知鳥舞は善知鳥神社正遷座 1180年祭(昭和62年斎行)を記念し、当時の伊勢の神宮 慶光院俊 大宮司の特別な計らいにより、神宮楽部が、この青森の永久の安寧を願い、うとう鳥の親子の情愛を表現し創作したものです。
    又、各ご家庭や会社、お店等の繁栄を祈念すべく、特別参拝時にはこの善知鳥舞を奉納することも出来ます 。


    Young and into the Noh


    I found this interesting comment by a rather famous Japanese anime voice actress, Ikezawa Haruna.

    ‘It began with an email from my father. “Do you want to go see Noh?”

    If I think back, the first time I saw Noh and Kyōgen was as an elementary-school pupil when we went to see it as part of a Social Studies class. It was also the last time I’d seen it.
    Kabuki and Bunraku, on the other hand, I’d been to see many times. I’d go to see Kabuki with a friend who liked it and would took me along. And Bunraku I’d gone to see with my father back in grade school. We’d take a lunch and watch the whole thing straight through.
    Both of them were interesting and the memories and pictures of those times are still strong in my mind. But, I have no memory of Noh. Perhaps, Noh was, for me as a grade-school pupil, just a bit too stoic. Things would unfold on this mysterious stage. Mysterious people would talk of mysterious tales. In my young mind the only thing I took away from it was thinking, “This kind of world exists as well, but I don’t understand it very much.”
    After that I never went to see Noh or Kyōgen of my own accord. I think that’s the case with the majority of Japanese of my generation….’

    Find the full text on

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