Tag Archives: dance

Toru: shaku-no-mai (酌之舞) variation

Today I went to the second Sōichirō-no-kai performance, organised by young Kanze school shite actor Hayashi Sōichirō. The main performance was Matsukaze, performed by Sōichirō and Sakaguchi Takanobu. The Kanze Iemoto, Kanze Kiyokazu (whose name is written 清河寿 and not 清和 starting this year) was the chorus leader, but also performed the maibayashi Tōru, shaku-no-mai kogaki (staging variation) before Matsukaze. Since I will perform the maibayashi from the Noh Tōru next August I thought I would go and watch this performance.

What an interesting performance! The normal version of Tōru features a haya-mai rapid tempo dance in 5 dan or sections. The Kongō school usually stages it as banshiki haya-mai, where banshiki indicates a shift in the flute mode during the second section (shodan). Among the variations in the Kongō repertoire is also the extremely demanding jū-san-dan no mai, or 13 movements dance, which Udaka Michishige danced last year at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo.

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The shaku-no-mai (酌之舞) kogaki, exclusive of the Kanze school, begins with a special tachimawari circling of the stage, followed by a shortened version of the hayamai, filled with special movements (for example the tappai position that signals the beginning of the dance is unusually performed while kneeling at jō-za, in front of the taiko player). What makes this kogaki particularly special is that the initial tachimawari is actually derived from the okina-no-mai dance in the ritual Okina. The shite goes to sumi (downstage right) and waki-za (downstage left) and stands still facing front while the flute plays one long, piercing note. In the context of Tōru I interpreted this as the spirit of the minister Minamoto no Toru contemplating the scenery of his villa in Kyoto (and the scenery of Matsushima and Michinoku that the villa itself reflects), his heart filled with nostalgia. It is a rather intense moment. Then the shite stamps exactly like in Okina, before completing the tachimawari and getting ready for the beginning of the actual hayamai.

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Konparu school actor Sakurama Kintaro

Another interesting thing is the name of this kogaki. The Kanze school performs the 酌之舞, where 酌 (shaku) is the act of pouring beverages, in this case rice wine. In the play,  the spirit of the minister Minamoto no Tōru observes the full moon reflected on a cup of rice wine, as he used to let cups flow on the surface of the artificial sea he created within his Kyoto residence, Kawara-no-in, during the banquets he used to hold there. However, Konparu, Kita and Hōshō schools perform the 笏之舞, where 笏 shaku is the wooden rod that was part of the formal gear of high ranking aristocrats such as Minamoto no Tōru, and that nowadays only shinto priests use. In this variation the shite uses an actual wooden shaku instead of the fan.

PS: Yokomichi Mario’s book on kogaki Nō ni mo enshutsu ga aru (Hinoki 2007) comes in very handy for checking variations of many Noh plays.

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Dancing with your iPhone

Bounden is a new iPhone app created by Dutch design shop Game Oven and developed by Ernst Meisner of the Dutch National Ballet. Basically, it’s a game meant to be played by two people simultaneously holding the iPhone. Players have to follow a path on a sphere that rotates according to how the iPhone is manipulated, resulting in a sort of dance duet. the app makes good use of the iPhone on-board gyroscope. Bounden is ‘just a game’, but it is interesting to see portable technology increasingly allowing us to engage with artistic practice that are not only music and drawing, which you can do sitting at your desk, but also performing arts that require us to move and to interact with other bodies. I have no trouble (kinda) seeing myself dancing alone in a studio, while Google Glass, Oculus Rift or whatever similar technology will be available in the future, shows other performers, or a sparring partner, or the shadow of my teacher on the glasses surface.

These days I am preparing for the tsure (companion) role in the Noh Yuya. I have performed a similar role in the past, albeit as a male character, and I am familiar with some of the chant and movement sequences, so instead of having a usual utai chant class to introduce the piece, my training started out as tachigeiko (standing lesson), where actors go through movements and chant on stage while holding the katazuke (score) in one hand in order to keep an eye on it. I have sometimes performed a kind of self-tachigeiko on my own holding a small tablet in one hand, where I playback videos I took in previous lessons. I literally dance as I watch the screen. (Warning: this is a rather ‘advanced’ technique that I do not recommend if you have not mastered the kata movements, as you are likely to misinterpret the video which was forcibly taken from a point of view which is not the one you have on stage.) With wearable technology developing so quickly, I can only wonder what kind of instruments we will use in our dance practice, say, in five years time. I am not entirely sure all the change it will bring will be for the good, but we will need to deal with that anyway.

[VIDEO] Comparing styles: Kanze and Kongo

People often wonder what differences are there between Noh stylistic schools, or ryū. In this video Kanze actor Katayama Shingo (on the left), and Kongō actor Teshima Kōji (on the right) demonstrate side by side a number of kata that exemplify various differences between shite dance styles. Ō-tsuzumi (hip-drum) player Taniguchi Masayoshi, conducting the experiment, introduces the two styles according to a well-established view of Kanze style as refined, purified from unnecessary movements, and Kongō style as elaborate, focusing on bodily technique. From 19:14 you can watch the performance of the shimai dance excerpt from the Noh Yashima, followed by an analysis of the kata differences. From 30:00 the chant of the kiri final section of Hagoromo is compared. Again, Kanze is thought to be refined while Kongō is dynamic. Ask anyone in the Noh about the differences between these schools and they will most likely say something very similar to this. I have my reservations about what seems to be an oversimplification or even a stereotype, though I understand why marketing requires (over)simplification in order to enhance penetration. Kongō dance is often more theatrical, featuring wide movements, but Kanze dance can be very elaborate, too. If refined means heavily embellished then Kanze chanting style certainly is refined. However I think that, if properly performed, Kongō school’s more essential chanting style is equally sophisticated. Anyway here is the video – you don’t need to know Japanese to enjoy.

(sorry for the HTML code below the video – I don’t seem to be able to delete it when embedding USTREAM…)

<br /><a href=”http://www.ustream.tv/&#8221; style=”padding: 2px 0px 4px; width: 400px; background: #ffffff; display: block; color: #000000; font-weight: normal; font-size: 10px; text-decoration: underline; text-align: center;” target=”_blank”>Video streaming by Ustream</a>

Practice notes #3 technique

photo-1Technique is what is left when you turn off emotions. Knowing every step of the dance, every modulation of the chant, understanding the meaning of each word and movement… none of this is really helpful on stage unless you have real control of the switch between emotion and technique. This ability cannot be acquired through intellectual understanding. Odd as it may seem, I feel it is more of a physical condition than a mental one.

This is why there is no shortcut to true skill. No intensive workshop. No crash course. Physical practice requires time. A matter of choice, I guess.

Practice notes #2 movement and costume

photo-1Today I had okeiko with my teacher’s eldest son Udaka Tatsushige. He gave me precise instructions about various moments of the play which I need to improve. Among all suggestion there is one thing I need to be particularly aware of: if my movements are too dynamic or extreme, if they are too ‘expressive’, it will be to the detriment of the costume. Reflecting on this I realised how much the costume, along with the mask, already does a lot of the narration just by being there on stage. It is important to establish a good relationship with the costume, restraining your movement, compressing your energy. If your acting crosses the line, the costume will disappear, only your movements will be visible. The costume has been perfected through centuries to serve its expressive purpose on stage: let’s make sure it has enough room to say what it has to say.

Shimai pictures – Yashima

I rarely publish pictures of myself on stage. Today I will make an exception as I received some great shots from Massimo Fioravanti, a very talented Italian photographer who has been following Udaka-sensei the past few months, taking pictures of performances and training sessions. Massimo has been working on various projects in Japan. Most notably, he published a photography book on Zuigan-ji in Matsushima, which has been severely damaged by the tsunami, and photographed the costumes collection of the Kongo family on the occasion of the 1989 exhibition at the Sforza Castle in Milan, published in a luscious volume.

In November 2012 Massimo came to Matsuyama where Sensei performed Sesshoseki (nyotai ‘female’ version). Before the performance there was a recital to which various members of the International Noh Institute took part with su-utai chant and shimai dances I did Yashima, which I have already blogged about here and here. Here are a couple of pictures that Massimo has kindly sent me.

Yashima 1
… 海山一同に震動して…

For those new to Noh, a shimai is a short excerpt of a play, something like an aria in opera. Shimai dances are studied independently from the full Noh, and are often performed as complement of a programme featuring full plays. Masks and costumes are not used, but formal montsuki (a plain black or white silk kimono) and hakama – the equivalent of a formal Western suit. There is no hayashi orchestra playing, only a small chorus of four sitting in the back of the stage. A shimai is the adaptation of the dance that would be performed in the full Noh, so movements are slightly different, and props are rarely used. In the case of Yashima the shite holds a sword, here substituted by the fan – the open fan in my left hand is a shield (this is the way it is portrayed in the Noh, too).

Yashima 2
… 打ち合い刺し違ふる…

Publishing pictures of Noh performances is not easy because of copyright issues. I will try and post more pictures of me – if I have decent ones – in the future. Massimo Fioravanti has been taking some amazing pictures of Udaka-sensei’s performances during the past few months and he is planning to hold an exhibition (in Venice and in Rome) and hopefully to publish a catalogue afterwards, which I hope will be available internationally.

Hosei University Noh Research Institute – 60th Anniversary Symposium

On November 18th I attended the 60th Anniversary symposium, organised by Hosei University’s Nogami Memorial Noh Research Institute. As Prof. Yamanaka Reiko explained in her introduction, the symposium was the latest of six decennial events that mark the growing progress and outstanding research results of the Research Centre. This year’s symposium was entitled ‘Noh no shosa wo kangaeru‘ (‘reflections on the shosa of Noh). Shosa literally means behaviour or comportment, but it is generally used in the performing arts to indicate ‘movement’. As Yokomichi Mario has described in volume IV of the Iwanami Shoten lectures series on Nogaku, in Noh shosa refers both to the dance and to the mimetic aspects of Noh movement.

The symposium opened with a talk by Ondrej Hýbl, a student of Okura-ryu Kyogen actor Shigeyama Shime, who introduced the activities of the Kyogen company he founded in Prague. Hýbl has been involved in Kyogen training in Kyoto as he studied at Osaka University. The achievements of his Czech Kyogen group are truly amazing! (check out this video of the Kyogen Kuchimane). During his speech Hýbl emphasised the need to discuss ways of opening the teaching of Noh and Kyogen outside Japan. I will talk more about this towards the end of the post.

The second talk was given by Kōno Yoshinori, a famous swordsmaster, who talk about changes in the swordsmanship techniques in relation to body parts such as thighs and lower back, which are also fundamental in Noh movement. You can see more about Kōno-sensei on YouTube.

The third talk was given by Nakatsuka Yukiko, who demonstrated the work in progress of a team of researchers she is part on 3D digitalisation and reconstruction of Noh movement. The team has produced a software they call ‘composer’, basically a sequencer drawing on a database of Noh kata acquired with motion capture techniques, that can be mounted in sequences and adjusted in time and speed, in order to suit various kinds of chants. With the Noh composer it is possible to reproduce Noh dance just by knowing which kata are executed, without the need of an actor. One of the main purposes of such technology is to record movements of Noh actors today so that they can be studied in detail in the future, something that cannot be done by simply noting kata in words. Though this kind of technology is moving its first steps, sometimes with rough-looking results, I am sure they will reach a very high level soon. 20 years ago we played Tetris, now we have Call of Duty.

Then followed two conversations. The first was between Noh actor Kanze Tetsunojō and Prof. Yamanaka, touching various aspects of the transmission of Noh movement. Despite his wide experience, it seems to me that Tetsunojō-sensei still is very much grounded in the traditional environment in which he grew up. By his own admission he has little idea of how to help the spreading of Noh outside Japan, a topic I was hoping to hear more on from his perspective. The second conversation, between Kabuki actor Nakamura Kyōzō and Prof. Kodama Ryūichi, discussed Kabuki movements in various styles, also comparing Noh with Kabuki.

A general discussion closed the symposium. I am very happy to have participated to the event, which was brilliantly conducted by Prof. Yamanaka Reiko. While Noh is imprisoned in literature courses outside Japan, it was very refreshing to attend a conference entirely dedicated to movement. I am convinced that Noh should always be taught as performance everywhere it is introduced. It is the only way to save it from the commonplace image of old and boring theatre. However, the wealth of performance theory available in the English language is unavailable in Japan, where traditional performing arts still reside in an academic field isolated from theatre studies. Will post more about this topic as soon as an important publication I have contributed to comes out in print.

As for the dissemination of Noh abroad, Hýbl-san pointed out a crucial aspect of Nogaku: both Kyogen and Noh are arts where perfection is valued, not creativity. This made me think of how Noh actors are more like sportsmen than artists: they spend their lives training on fixed models, largely ignoring all that does not belong to this world. While non-traditional artists draw inspiration from various sources, often deepening the knowledge of other arts (cinema, literature, painting) or even travelling and living abroad, 99% of Noh actors live in isolation from the world.  Obviously when they are confronted with questions such as ‘how do you spread Noh abroad’ the answer is something like: “well, I don’t know… Noh is like this, take it or leave it”. From their perspective there does not seem to be a need of exploring outside its ‘traditional’ boundaries. Where this attitude will lead, I am not sure. What I am sure, though, is that 90% of the audience who attended the symposium on a Sunday afternoon was over 60 years old, which means that in some 30 years they are likely to be all dead. Will they have passed their interest for Noh down to their grandsons by that time? If not, I wonder who will still go to the Noh theatre, except for me and a few others I know (if we are still around). Edward Shils wrote that when tradition becomes useless, it dies. Will it survive in computer generated animations? I hope not.

What I am more and more realising while I am in Japan, is that if foreigners want to learn Noh, they should not expect Japanese institutions to offer ways of doing it. We non-Japanese who have an interest in Noh should get together and do our best to discuss ways of transmitting Noh abroad. As Hýbl pointed out, Nogaku is taught and learnt by imitation, not through books. It is then necessary to find a way for Noh and Kyogen masters to frequently travel or to live for longer periods outside Japan, or for foreigners to live for longer periods in Japan, where they could learn the art and then be able to transmit it to the ‘outside world’. Thanks to the efforts of the International Noh Institute, I feel I am on the right track. I look forward to discussing again about this very important topic with Ondrej Hýbl, Prof. Yamanaka, and the other scholars who took part of the symposium.

PS: speaking of anniversaries, this is my 100th post! : )