There are times when you feel you are receiving less attention than you need from your teacher. Those are good reminders of the need to take responsibility for your own practice. Tradition is not a path of flowers, but a dark wood.
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.
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…
On Sunday 21st April I led a Noh theatre workshop for foreigners at the HUB Kyoto, Kyohakuin. It’s been a wonderful experience and a great chance to meet foreigners who share an interest in Noh and who are willing to try their best with Noh utai chant and shimai dance. Kyohakuin is an ex-school featuring a Noh stage which was not used for several decades. Recently the kagami-ita backdrop pine tree has been restored by Kim Hea-Kyoung and Ichimiya Keiko, and the participants of this workshop as well as myself had the privilege of dancing the shimai Oimatsu (‘Aged Pine’) in front of the renovated pine tree for the first time.
Teaching absolute beginners is a very instructing experience for the teacher, too. Teaching a full, albeit brief, dance to people who never even walked the suriashi sliding step is very challenging, yet I find fascinating how all participants identify dance elements differently and focus on various parts of the dance according to their own decoding tools and processes.
Photographer Stéphane Barbery joined us and took the awesome picture you see on this post. Stéphane has a long-term project on Japanese traditional arts, and has photographed a number of Noh professionals so far. You can check his work on his Flickr account here.
THANKS to Lucinda Cowing and Eri Suzuki of the HUB Kyoto for helping organise and promote the event: I very much enjoyed this workshop and I am looking forward to the next one!
On Sunday 21st April the INI International Noh Institute will hold a Noh workshop at the HUB Kyoto, Kyohakuin (see below for details & directions).
Noh drama, Japanese traditional theatre of masks, music and abstract and mimetic movement, is the world’s oldest masked performance tradition. It has been performed uninterrupted for over six hundred years, and in 2001 was designated an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. Noh portrays a world where the boundaries of past, present, and future blur and our consciousness of memory, the moment, and anticipation of what is to come unite. In this singular environment, the spirits of elegant ladies and fierce warriors, gods and goddesses, flowering plants and demons appear and share nostalgic memories of their desires and attachments.
In the INI Encounters with Noh Workshop at HUB Kyoto, participants will learn the basic principles of Noh theatre in the tradition of the Kongō School. This includes basic meditation in preparation for training, physical/vocal warm up exercises, chant and dance movements through the study of a short dance excerpt.
No previous knowledge of Noh is required. The workshop will be conducted in English.
The workshop will be led by Dr. Diego Pellecchia, Noh scholar, student of Udaka Michishige, and active member of the International Noh Institute.
Students are kindly asked to bring comfortable clothes and socks (preferably white)
Participation fee: ¥5,000
Concessions (students): ¥2,500
Observation fee: ¥1000
This workshop is restricted to 10 places. Please book by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
About the INI – International Noh Institute
The International Noh Institute was founded in 1984 in response to the urging of foreigners studying with UDAKA Michishige as members of his student group and participants of intensive courses. Since then, UDAKA Michishige has taught students from various disciplines, including actors, dancers, psychologists and scholars, from thirteen countries through INI programs.
Nearest station: Kuramaguchi on the Karasuma Subway Line.
Walk 3 minutes south (towards Doshisha University, Imadegawa-dori) on the east side of Karasuma-dori. Kyohakuin is between a tobacco shop and koban police box.
I still have not quite understood to what extent working on the floor is good for the body. If one were only to be sitting in seiza that would not be a problem as it actually helps you keeping your back straight. But what about moving, bending, reaching for objects and all the other usual movements we do in a workplace? I find that working on the floor forces my back into painful and not always useful postures. I must admit I have some problems with my lower back, which gets easily tired, and I wonder whether seiza will eventually help me correcting my posture or actually increase the stress on my lower back…
This is going to be my next memory effort. The next hayashi kenkyukai is coming up mid-August, and I am slated to be in the jiutai (chorus) for the Noh Yashima, among other things. I will post more about the kenkyukai (what it is, how it works) in the following posts.
I am spending a couple of weeks in my hometown, Brescia, Italy, where I return quite often not only to visit my family and friends, but also to train with Monique Arnaud, the Noh teacher that first introduced me to Noh theatre. Arnaud is a shihan, a Noh instructor licensed by the iemoto of our stylistic school, the Kongō School of Noh. Arnaud, who is originally French, has spent most of her life abroad, first in China, then Japan, then Italy, where she currently resides, working as opera choreographer, and teaching theatre directing at IUAV University of Venice.
These days I am working on the maibayashi from the Noh Kiyotsune (清経). Maibayashi is one of the various canonical ways of performing excerpts of a Noh play, such as shimai (short dance with the accompaniment of a small chorus) or rengin (seated chant of a section of a play). Maibayashi (舞囃子) is a word composed by the characters for ‘dance’ (舞 mai) and ‘Noh instruments’ (囃子 hayashi). Unlike shimai, the maibayashi features the accompaniment of chorus and of the Noh orchestra, and is usually longer than an average shimai, often featuring an instrumental dance between two sections of the play. Kiyotsune is a play from the second category (Warrior plays) and tells the story of Taira no Kiyotsune (平 清経) a general of the Heike clan appearing in the Heike Monogatari epic who drowned himself at Yanagi-ga-ura (present Kitakyūshū) after realising the unavoidable defeat of his army, chased by the Genji clan. Just before committing suicide, Kiyotsune cuts his hair and gives them to his retainer Awazu no Saburo, instructing him to present it to his wife as a keepsake. The Noh opens with Saburo returning to Kyoto, where Kiyotsune’s wife awaits for the return of her husband. Once Saburo tells her about her husband, the wife is shocked and laments how Kiyotsune failed to keep the promise to reunite with her, and refuses the gift. Still in tears, she goes to sleep, where Kiyotsune visits her in dreams. In the second half of the play the ghost of Kiyotsune, in full warrior attire, appears, and discusses with the wife. This is a most interesting section, with Kiyotsune blaming the wife for having refused his gift, while the wife blames him for the selfish act of committing suicide. Blaming each other in what seems like a domestic fight, the couple realises how their condition is similar, both suffering from loss and longing, as this world and the other world are made of the same substance. Kiyotsune then recounts his last days, and, in the final dance, he mimes how he now suffers in hell, where rain is like arrows pouring from the sky, mountains are like iron castles, and enemy warriors advance inesorably like flags of clouds. As it often happens in Noh, it is thanks to the power of the narration of one’s own story (as in a psychoanalysis session) that the characters come to realise the inconsistence of their pain, and manage to get rid of the attachments that prevent them to reach enlightenment. In this case, Kiyotsune reaches enlightenment not only thanks to the nenbutsu prayer he recites before jumping into the water, but also because he comes to terms with his wife. In a way, it is not only the dissatisfaction with his own death, but also the resentment that his wife feels for him that cause his suffering.
I have already performed the maibayashi from the Noh Kochō (胡蝶) a couple of years ago, which contains a standard chu-no-mai medium tempo instrumental dance. However, in Kiyotsune there is no dance between the kuse and kiri sections, but a short exchange between husband and wife, before the kiri closing section where Kiyotsune recounts his torments in the hell of the ashura, the defeated warriors who remain attached to this world and cannot reach enlightenment are destined to suffer. This section is characterised by the guntai martial style, in which the kamae basic stance is performed in han-mi style, slightly lateral instead of frontal. This stance is typical of martial arts, and basically aims at avoiding to offer the front of the body to the opponent, while at the same time presenting the arm that would hold a sword or shield. As maibayashi are not in costume, this dance is performed with two fans – one is open and represents the shield, the other the sword. Handling two fans at the same time is not easy, though the greatest difficulty of the martial stile consists in performing jumps and other more acrobatic movements while maintaining the stability and solidity typical of Noh dance. As a ‘caucasian’ I also find that my legs are longer that the average east-asian: in order to take a good posture I have to bend my knees much more than the usual, which in the case of a warrior is already a lot! This puts much stress on knees and thighs, and naturally leads me to reflect on the extent to which Noh is a form of art tailored around a specific body type (male Japanese), and might not immediately fit other bodies. What is the future of the Noh bodies?