My teacher’s son Udaka Norishige is preparing to perform as shite in the play Kayoi Komachi, at the bimonthly training session his father organises. When my schedule permits (they usually do this in the morning) I join in a chorus member, but this time I will take the tsure companion of the shite role. In Kayoi Komachi this is a rather demanding role as the tsure (the ghost of the Heian period poetess Ono no Komachi) acts alone during the first half of the play, de-facto acting as a shite.
It will be challenging also because it is the first time I take on a female role in a full play. I will need to practice hard to train my voice to sing in a ‘feminine mode’, (though this kind of mode still sounds quite manly to the untrained ear).
On Sunday 17 August I took part in the 2014 Kei’un-kai, INI Memorial Taikai performance, a collective recital in which a great number of Udaka Michishige’s students performed dance and chant excepts, as well as full Noh plays. This year’s highlights were the Noh Atsumori and Funa-benkei. As for me, I danced the maibayashi from the Noh Tōru, featuring a godan-hayamai, an instrumental dance in five parts. I enjoyed performing in an environment that is becoming increasingly more familiar to me. Everyone has been extremely supportive during the preparation and on the day of the performance.
Oddly enough though, the most difficult performance of the day was singing in the jiutai for a cluster of seven shimai(dance excerpts at the accompaniment of a chorus of four). They were all basic pieces (Tsunemasa kuse,Yashima, Momiji-gari, Kochō, Yuki kuse-kiri, Hagoromo kuse, Kakitsubata kiri), but this was my first time in such a formal situation. In the case of a shimai, four jiutai singers are sitting at the back of the stage, facing the front. I was in the lowest ranking position (A in the drawing), upstage right, which is coincidentally the most difficult to be in: it is the furthest from the jigashira (chorus leader, sitting in position C in the drawing), and the closest to the waki-shōmen side of the stage, where the audience is sitting and can hear your voice clearly: not a comfortable place for a beginner. In addition, the way jiutai is sung for shimai is different from the way it is performed for a maibayashi or for a full Noh. It is not easy to explain all differences, but generally speaking a jiutai for shimai is ‘lighter’, often quicker because it is not forced to respect the extension of syllables regulated by the rhythm of the drums, and all pauses (ma) between verses. This is particularly evident in hiranori chant type, in which twelve syllables match an 8 beat rhythmical pattern. It is less evident in chūnori and ōnori, where the syllables subdivision is more regular and a certain set rhythm has to be maintain.
The way jiutai chant for shimai is performed does not depend on the jigashira’s extemporaneous feeling. It maintains a rhythm that all four chanters have to follow, but should not be sung ‘as if’ drums were there, or it would result in a boring, predictable recitation. Chorus of sole amateurs or novices often end up singing this way. In a professional shimai jiutai, notes are often shortened, and the speed is generally faster, but it maintains a certain jo/ha/kyu. Talking about this with Udaka-sensei the other day, he confirmed that in order to sing well in a shimai jiutai, I would first need to master utai with the percussions, then I will be able to understand better the utai for shimai, which definitely stands at a higher level of expertise.
Now that I have learned my first godan dance, I will continue to research progressively challenging mai (instrumental dances). My next assignment is the maibayashi from the Noh Kantan, a beautiful piece featuring the gaku, a stately dance characterised by many hyoshi or feet stamps. At the same time, I will continue studying various ji-utai for Noh that other people will perform as shite. It will be important for me not only to learn how to sing, but also to deepen my understanding of rhythm.
As preparations for our Sunday 17th recital are becoming more and more intense, Udaka-sensei has asked me to work as ‘sparring partner’ with some of his more mature students, as well as coach younger students. This is a conventional practice in traditional Japanese arts, where people who can help take responsibility for training those in need. Most of this activity consists in offering one’s knowledge, but also one’s ‘external’ point of view, always keeping in mind that it cannot be a substitute to the teacher’s training, but only an additional and limited support. Recently I have done quite a bit of this coaching, probably for the first time since I am in Japan, and I have enjoyed it immensely.
As I was sharing my knowledge with others, I felt compelled to reflect on what I have learned so far in a more analytical way. My okeiko (lessons) with Udaka-sensei are often more ‘holistic’ than ‘scientific’, meaning that I am provided with lots of information by means of metaphors and images, rather than being shown step-by-step choreography. This is, I think, because I am now at a stage where I am supposed to observe his teaching and do my own analysis, without him breaking down everything as he would do with an absolute beginner. This is form of learning is done by imitation and embodiment of a model, rather than rational dissection and reassembling.
However, a Noh choreography still depends on sets of rules and conventions that need to be understood in detail in order to master (and also enjoy) a dance. Therefore, coaching others is a great chance for me to reconsider movement sequences that I have learned through the ‘holistic’ method, and observe them through a more ‘scientific’ method. Thanks to this teaching, I am realising lots of things that I was taken for granted… in fact I am learning a lot! At the end of our training session yesterday I felt a sense of completion, as if something had come full circle. This kind of feeling is common to most of those who, one way or the other, have realised how instructive an activity teaching can be.
This reminded me of Victor Turner, who in From Ritual to Theatre draws on the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey to describe experience as ‘never truly complete until it is ‘expressed’, that is, until it is communicated in terms of intelligible to others, linguistic or otherwise’. This certainly applies to what I have experienced in the past few days. It also connects to the way Noh is transmitted within a community of practitioners who create two-way, diagonal ties among them, instead of solely depend on the vertical transmission from the teacher.
I feel very grateful to be part of the Kei’un-kai, and of the International Noh Institute, and to explore the richness of various kinds of knowledge it can offer.
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.
Every year at this time of the year Udaka-sensei performs a brief ritual of purification of the butai, the stage on which he and his students practice during the rest of the year, at the okeikoba practice space. As you can see in the pictures, a small altar with an Okinadoll and various offerings (rice cakes, mandarins, uncooked rice, salt and rice wine, etc.) is set up at the back of the stage. During the ceremony omiki, a ceremonial sacred cup of wine, is also served. This ceremony derives from shinto practices associated with the New Year, where various places or objects are blessed or purified, getting ‘refreshed’ for the new year.
From a secular perspective, I found this ritual very meaningful. The practice space is not a place like any other. Theatre practitioners such as Stanislavski and E.G. Craig wrote it in red letters in their notes. The stage is like a workplace, one that is shared with others. It is a space for meeting and transmission of knowledge. The stage demands respect. Much of what happens on stage would not be convincing without the necessary amount of concentration and tension. We treat the stage like an ‘other’ place, for example we don’t walk on it without wearing white tabi socks, or we don’t sit on its edge – all this informs our conscious and unconscious awareness that the stage is not like any other place, and this results in an heightened state of tension when performing on it. The theatre stage is charged by the gaze of all those who look at you when you perform on it, but the private practice space needs extra attention in order to perceive at least some of the emotions you feel when you go on stage. That is why we need to respect our practice space, whatever it is, wherever we are.
A true priest is aware of the presence of the altar during every moment that he is conducting a service. It is exactly the same way that a true artist should react to the stage all the time he is in the theater. An actor who is incapable of this feeling will never be a true artist.
I was listening to this radio show about extreme sports… Among the various neurotransmitters rushing whenever we are exposed to danger is adrenaline. Adrenalin rush affects our body in various ways – among these, it helps fixation of memories. Experiencing danger triggers adrenalin release, making such experience extraordinary and unforgettable. This seems to have a pedagogic purpose: our body learns how to act efficiently even when we have no time to think. This is beyond instinct; rather, it is an unconsciously acquired skill.
I often think that Noh offers many situations of danger, which can be both ‘artistic’ (in Noh there is very little room for improvisation, hence the condition of constant ‘alert’) or physical (i. e. the danger of falling of stage). Performing Kiyotsune last week provided the chance to feel adrenalin rush on various occasions. Other situations of danger, giving rise to heightened senses, are okeiko (lessons, in the traditional arts) especially when my teacher is not in a particularly good mood (or when he is). As I progress on the way of Noh my training becomes stricter, and I noticed that my teacher tends to put more pressure on me when he teaches me, often interrupting my movements to briskly correct, hammering on the same gesture, expecting repeated correct executions before moving to the next step, etc. These are not straightforwardly ‘perilous’ situations, but they still retain a certain degree of danger, as failure to live up to a certain standard will result in my teacher’s disappointment. Exams are dangerous. In other words, strict, tough training, sometimes even involving physical contact of sorts, can effect our brain positively, inasmuch it helps ingraining the teaching in the body. The following step is learning how to manage the rush effectively as it happens.
In conclusion I wanted to add that adrenaline is released in dangerous situations along with another hormon, dopamine, a chemical whose effect we common describe as ‘pleasure’. I will let you draw your own conclusions on this…