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Artistry and Tradition Showcased in Kanze Noh Theatre's 'Okina' and 'Hagoromo'

by Mindy Aloff
July 15, 2016
Frederick P. Rose Hall
Time/Warner Center
Columbus Circle
33 West 60th Lobby (entrance)
5th Floor (Theater)
New York, NY 10023
(212) 258-9500
A couple of years back, Kiyokazu Kanze—the 26th Grand Master of the Kanze theatrical family and the direct descendant of late-14th-century Kanze Kan'ami and his son Zeami, generally considered the founders of Noh theater—was conversing with the international Kabuki star Tomasaburo Bando for a business newspaper. Although their artistic traditions vary considerably in many ways, the actors found themselves in agreement on the importance of maintaining both a superhuman physical discipline and uncorruptible integrity. As Kanze put it later, “We agreed that it is extremely important that lessons must be something that make actors have a glimpse of hell. Tamasaburo said, 'A person who is performing an art to entertain others must see hell.' I feel the same and replied, 'Actors have to push beyond their limits during training.'”

Kiyokazu Kanze—who is performing at this year's annual Lincoln Center Festival with his teenaged son, Saburota, in Okina, often described as the oldest surviving example of Noh theater, a ceremony more than a play—added that by a “taste of Hell” he was not speaking of sadistic or punitive pedagogy, which is a one-sided imposition of power. He meant instead the type of discipline followed by his own son, a member of his high school basketball team as well as a willing Noh Grand Master-in-training, who is accustomed to practice his difficult movement exercises for Noh even when he comes home from school exhausted. In the 21st century, Kanze's Hell can be evoked by hard training for serious trainees: It may be painful but the pain is understood as a necessity toward a beneficial goal. If this sounds military, that would be apt. Noh was originally performed not only by professional actors and playwrights (Zeami [Kanze] Motokiyo, 1363-1443, is still considered the greatest playwright of the tradition) but also by 16th-century samurai. Kiyokazu Kanze suggests, in another interview, that the Noh actor, in his characteristic, tightly fitted socks, originally adopted the sliding walk that is a hallmark of the tradition because those actor-samurai back in the day were packing two heavy swords, one on each hip, and the slide was the only way they could cross a palace floor with them. (Several months ago, at a lecture-demonstration by another Noh master, at The New School, it was suggested that the sliding walk was used by Noh actors because the masks of carved wood made it difficult for those wearing them to see where they are going. Both explanations could be true. The characters in the Tokyo-based Kanze Noh Theatre performance I saw, whose choreography included explosive, two-footed jumps, were, with one exception, not wearing masks.)

The word “noh” in Japanese means “skill” or “ability,” and the biographies of the Kanze actors—some of whom began to perform at the age of three—certainly exemplify nearly a lifetime in pursuit of that element. In a Noh play, even when one character is a ghost or a goddess lamenting something, the atmosphere of the lament tends to be careful, reasonable, controlled. On the other hand, “kyogen”—the name of the short, comic-element intermezzi that accompany the usually tragic or at least somber Noh plays—in Japanese means something like “mad or wild speech.” The alternation of tempi is important. Although Noh is usually spoken of by Westerners as “slow,” I, for one, believe that the more accurate term would be “measured.” The pacing of a Noh play, at least of the oldest ones, tends to begin with stately action and then, gradually, to build up to a complex criss-crossing of slow-and-fast changes, with intervening stamps of the foot or, from the singers, birdlike cries, until suddenly the audience is caught in a strange climax of whirling energy. Then, the whirl is over, and the actors soberly exit along a “bridge” and under a curtain or, in the case of the chorus and other attendants, crouching through a low door on the side of the clean wooden stage, leaving behind only the empty performing space and a life-enhancing pine tree. (Perhaps because the Kanze Noh troupe is so distinguished as the direct legacy of Noh's founders, in addition to the big painted pine there are also three smaller pine trees in tubs.) During the lecture-demonstration at Japan Society on July 12, Kiyokazu Kanze also remarked (through a translator) that the tempo of performing in Zeami's time was probably much faster. He explained that the tempi are likely to have slowed considerably in the 17th century, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Noh was designated an “official” theatrical form.

Many of the stories in the Noh repertory—whose female as well as male characters are, historically, performed by all-male companies—concern the revelation of apparent humans as demons or ghosts. Sometimes, the characters harbor tears, and sometimes they are nursing long-lived rage. The two plays I saw the Kanze Noh perform at the Rose Theater on July 13, however, were neither “revelation” works nor laments, and both they and the one Kyogen included on the bill were largely given over to dancing, accompanied by singing and the instrumental music of the three or four drums and the flute of the traditional Noh orchestra. Okina, a celebration of divine spirits and of tradition, as well as, we are told, being a prayer for world peace, features an old man (played by Kanze Noh troupe leader, Kiyokazu Kanze) who enters the stage and “receives” an old man's mask, which, in this case, is the work of a wood sculptor named Kawachi and dates from the 17th century. While the senior citizen ties on his stereotypical face of advanced age, a younger companion (played by Kiyokazu Kanze's son), unmasked, steps to the center of the playing space and dances a lively and rather complicated full-body choreography. The oldster also dances, less athletically but with chilling precision. He eventually takes off his mask of old age and both men exit, first Okina then the younger Senzai. The exits are unemphatic, although they don't return. Yet life goes on. The Kyogen character Sambaso (Yasutaro Yamamoto), in a shiny black headpiece that ties under the chin, does his own “mad” dance after bantering with his mask carrier, Menbako (Noritake Yamamoto) and putting on his special black mask.

This dance includes two-footed gemsbok jumps that spring from nowhere. Its comedy may be theoretically clownish but in practice it's divine.

The second work on the program, Hagoromo (“The Robe of Feathers,” a variant of a play by Zeami) features a stout fisherman, with his pole (Tsuneyoshi Mori), who finds a shawl or poncho-like coat of inexpressibly delicate material, which he intends to take home as a treasure until he is stopped by an angel (Yoshinobu Kanze), in a young girl's mask with elaborately woven garments and a headpiece full of tinkling golden parts, like a Calder mobile. She claims the garment as hers, pleading for its return, otherwise she won't be able to return to Heaven. In the course of negotiations, the Fisherman exacts something from her, giving her the robe as long as she consents to dance in it, which she does.

During all of these works, there are long stretches of thick yet energized silence and momentary yet memorable postures of stillness, which seem to buzz with internal energy.

Another word often used about Noh is “simplicity”; however, when one considers the dances, the restricted set of movements and tempi are deployed in ways that prove complex and coded. It was puzzling that, in the excellent lecture at Japan Society, Kiyokazu Kanze explained painstakingly how the instruments are made and the sumptuous costumes are woven and the magnificent masks are asymmetrical in their features in order to permit different emotions to emerge when the actor's face is canted at different angles; but he said nothing about how the rigorous traditional poses and actions that make up the dances are put together and whether their choreography is made anew by the actor or is learned at the school or is notated in an archive of past productions. I'd love to know who synchronized Sambasso's shaking of his golden “bell tree” with his pointing of his closed fan and with the intonation of the chorus, and who decided to construct the wonderful dance phrase that had him running in a half-circle and then turning on his own axis in a two-footed “pirouette,” like the pirouettes of the Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School (a balletic maneuver developed originally for use in warfare). And, for the dance of the angel in Hagoromo, who authored the delicate symmetry of her phrase in which she gestures with one arm, opening it to show the full expanse of the sheer designs of the sleeve, then opening the other arm, then spreading both like a great bird, then pivoting her body on its axis, then walking, then slightly swaying, then pivoting da capo to repeat the phrase in another location of the stage? The rhythm is mesmerizing in its sensuous ligatures. And, yet, one never forgets that she is a sacred being. The measure and continuity of her phrasing and the energized stillnesses and silences sharpen one's consciousness to that fact.

Last fall, at the BAM Harvey, the New York City Ballet principals Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto performed a dance-theater version of Hagoromo, conceived and directed by David Michalik, and with Bunraku-like puppets, by Chris M. Green, all choreographed by David Neumann to a European-Japanese fusion score by Nathan Davis, with solo singers and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Whelan—a stork of a dancer with an exactingly placed gait—is, physically and stylistically, about as far from the gentlemen of the Kanze Noh Troupe as one might imagine. The production kept going lax, but one could sense in it a kind of ideal: the sacred silence that the director wanted to envelop the dancer. That palpable sacred quality in Whelan's movement was successfully evoked from her by Alexei Ratmansky in his NYCB ballets Russian Seasons, DSCH, and Pictures at an Exhibition. In the last of those titles, she originated the figure of the woman in yellow, who miraculously slides into a lift on her partner's shoulder the way a Kanze Noh actor's foot slides across the stage. The difference in the Kanze Noh version, it seems to this viewer, is that the sacred quality is more than a theatrical effect and more than a metaphor. The Kanze Noh angel's dance is sacred in an experiential sense. It suspends one's perception of passing time; it makes volumetric space feel infinite. It's the real deal.

Remaining Kanze Noh Theatre performances at Lincoln Center Festival

- July 15 @ 7:30pm - "Hagoromo," "Kaki Yamabushi," "Sumida Gawa"
- July 16 @ 1:30pm - "Okina" and "Aoi No Ue"
- July 16 @ 7:30pm - "Hagoromo," "Busshi," "Aoi No Ue"
- July 17 @ 2pm - "Okina" and "Shakkyo"

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger


Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger

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