Kabuki Dance Workshop and Performance


Yesterday, I went to a Kabuki Dance Workshop and Kabuki Dance Performance at Japan Society. Here’s a write-up of what it was like. Disclaimer: I know most of you who know me think I’m some sort of all around expert on all things Japanese, but I actually do not know that much about kabuki. I mostly know Nô (nooooo). Consider all of this the wonderings and reflections of an informed amateur. I would love some input from people who are more experienced with styles of Japanese dance and performance that aren’t Nô,

First I went to the workshop with the performers. It was two hours long with 24 participants. Honestly, I could have gone for another two hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve been bossed around about keeping my feet together by a bunch of Japanese people who do not hesitate to move my body parts where they want them. I missed it! I also understood about 90% of the Japanese, which is great considering how out of practice I am, though I think it owes more to the teachers’ easy-to-understand speech style. 

This was, however, very different from my days in Nô instruction. First of all, the group was obviously a mix of mostly amateurs, some Japanese speakers, i.e. it was not a bunch of intense Japanese college students who take their performances very seriously even if they don’t understand any of the words they’re chanting (and who immediately go back to reading One Piece and Kuroshitsuji after practice, Doshisha Nôgakubu Kanzekai, I love you all.) Shout out to the small child who is apparently really into Kabuki who kept asking adorable questions; she graduated the workshop with a degree in adorableness, for sure. The main teacher, Bando Kotoji, was the lead dancer for this performance (the star, if you will) and he was hilarious. He obviously had acting in his soul – every moment would be another mime or gesture. The assistant teachers were other dancers from the group and they were all also quite suteki (“handsome”, “cool”), haha, the men and the women both (but I think all Japanese dancers are pretty suteki, sorry.)   

Second difference was that this was, ahem, kabuki. I quickly discovered that I was fine with the movements but not so much the personality – I never had to express iroke (sensuality) in Nô! Don’t get me wrong, Nô certainly expresses character and it’s important to know what you’re embodying as you dance, but we never focused on the personality of each movement. And, obviously, I never had to cross my eyes to perform Nô, ugh. But it’s the same problem I’ve always had in acting and in life – lack of ability to show emotions – which has lead to me being cast as narrators etc in the handful of plays I did in junior high and high school (I have no fear of public speaking, a good memory, and a strong speaking voice, but no facial expressions. Basically born to be the voice of God.) 

So we learned a bunch of cool steps, we acted like ladies, we acted like ruffians (araigoto), we played with the costumes that turned out to be for the Yoshino-yama performance, and I sat seiza like a pro. Overall, I was left with a desire to run off to Japan and train in Nô and then become the lady Donald Keene of the next generation. 

I would say the most important lesson I took away from this was one I already knew, though I always applied it specifically to Nô. This is the centrality of transformation and movement to the performance. Bando-sensei kept coming back to the idea that, with a turn, with a slap on the knees, one could become a different character, and with a twist in your footwork and a single line, you can move across the entire world. This is an essential aspect of Nô performance, where there is often limited scenery and the characters, almost ritualistically, recite their names and location at each new introduction. You announce, “I am a monk who is traveling. I started in Kyoto” – a step – “and traveled and then I arrived” – a turn around the stage – “in New York.” Magical! At the end, the adorable child’s mother asked if there was a particular psychological shifting technique to this, one she could use to shift gears in life, essentially, and Bando-sensei said to do the movements (slap the knees, pivot) and see how it helps. 

Then I went upstairs to the gallery to check out the Deco Japan exhibition. It was flawless, you all should go, though small like most Japan society exhibitions. The posters, packages, and paintings are particularly striking to me, but the kimono designs and the household objects are also really important to the collection and to the evolution of Japanese design consciousness. 

I sat through the pre-performance lecture, which was good but kind of all over the place. The speaker, a dancer and teacher, gave a history of kabuki dance and shamisen and focused on the importance of music to the performance. She also talked about the concept of MA (???) as a gap in time or space, a pause, which she connected to AKUMA ??????, a demon that could mess up your performance, but also to MARYOKU ??????, the magic that imbues the performance with meaning. 

Finally, the performance itself. It was strange to see all these people who had just been right next to me, teaching me some hot dance moves, up on stage in full costume and make-up. The effect was striking. 

Sanbasô: a dance adapted from Okina. Okina, if you’re not familiar with it, is a Nô / proto-Nô “play”, though it’s really more like a celebratory dance / song than it is a story. It’s kind of the “number zero” of the Nô repertoire and it’s mostly known for being really different from all other Nô plays. Traditionally, it would open a full day of Nô. This adapted dance was no different! Bando danced in a hat with a rising sun and a dark festival coat with an elaborate crane embroidered on the shoulders and sleeves (you couldn’t tell what it was most of the time, but at one point, he stretched his arms with his back towards us.) There was a flesh-tone layer underneath his top layer, suggesting that the character is actually mostly naked. He rang bells and came out into the audience to ring them over our heads. It was great, everyone was amused, and obviously from the perspective of ritual aspects of performance, this is a highly important “opening act” to bring blessings on the whole performance. 

Cho no michiyuki: A standard plot: two lovers from warring families, the woman dies and the man kills himself to follow her in death. They become butterflies and troll around together. Then, they reach the afterlife, only to get pulled into hell for the sins of their families. When I read the synopsis, my first thought was, “Wow, most Japanese plot ever?” But now that I know a little bit more about opera, it’s obvious that this sort of melodrama is universal. The dancing in this case was beautiful and broken up with interludes of glowing butterflies brought on to the stage by the assistants. There’s an odd middle section where they costume change and dance for the New Year and/or Buddha’s birthday, but then it really picks up when they’re dragged into hell (true of most plays involving people getting dragged to hell.) 

One major aspect of kabuki (and most Japanese theatre, as stated above) is the emphasis on transformation. In this case, they’ve already transformed into butterflies (the assistants with their glowing butterflies continually bring us back to this) but the depiction of their butterfly life shifts. First, they appear in costume as all white spirit butterflies, then they dress in colorful spring outfits as they celebrate on their journey. The tone of the performance shifts again as they cross the river into the afterlife and fight not to fall into hell and finally, they come out in white costumes with silvery designs suggesting the shape of butterfly wings as their bodies are consumed in the flames. I guess what I mean to point out is that the performance, costumes, set, lighting, and the music all come together to move them from spirit-humans to spirit-butterflies and vice versa. 

Tamatori Ama: This was the most Nô-like dance, adapted from the play Ama. So of course, I thought it was great and the teenagers behind me thought it was dull and needed more movement (ugh high school students who are really into Japanese culture, I’m so ashamed I was once one of you.) Anyway! The story is about a pearl diver who bears the son of a nobleman who had disguised himself as a commoner because he had lost his sacred jewel to the sea dragons nearby. When the pearl diver finds out this is why her lover came to town, she says she’ll get it back as long as he promises to make her son his heir. So she dives and grabs it from the dragons and they give chase. When it looks like all hope is lost, she stabs herself in the belly and tucks the jewel inside the wound. The dragons, you see, will not approach the dead. With her dying strength, she tugs the safety line and the other villagers pull her up, jewel intact. 

Obviously I think there’s a lot to say about this and it was beautifully depicted here. Our ama in this story effects the only true bodily transformation open to a human: she transforms herself from alive to dead. In doing this, she invokes taboos against contact with the dead, which were almost as strong in her society as they are in the sea dragon society, for her own purposes and thereby transcends the limitations put in place by the taboo. Her reward for this is the breakdown of another strict societal limitation – her son, born a commoner, will become a noble lord. But a human – as opposed to a fox or another “trickster” figure – cannot transgress these boundaries between life/death, land/sea, human/dragon, commoner/lord freely and so she sacrifices herself so that these boundaries can be broken down temporarily, allowing her lover to get his jewel and her son to become a lord. 

Yoshino-yama: The big show of this performance is a dance section from Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees). I personally think Yoshitsune Senbonzakura is amazing, I might like it better than Chuushingura but don’t quote me on that. This section is where Shizuka-gozen is traveling around, trying to get to Yoshitsune, and Tadanobu, Yoshitsune’s retainer, appears to accompany her. Of course, he’s not really Tadanobu, he’s actually a fox who is attracted by the sound of Shizuka’s drum which is made from the hide of his mother. Anyway, they pal around, reminisce about Yoshitsune’s adventures, and just in general have a good time up on Yoshino. 

This one was definitely the closest to the Kabuki I’ve seen before; it was a lot more like a scene from a longer production than the others. The cool part about this performance is how the fox retainer is depicted. All of his movements are standard warrior movements (like we learned in the workshop!) but his gestures are made more fox-life – he folds his hands like paws, he tiptoes somewhat lightly. Anyway, it’s adorable and the whole thing is awesome. Shizuka-gozen is always a favorite with me for some reason. 

Overall, another fabulous performance series from Japan Society. As usual, on my Japan Society survey, I wrote, “DO MORE OF THEM” for suggestions for how to improve their performance schedule. I also told them to get a bunraku performance and a Takarazuka-style revue performance (but their stage is literally not big enough for a single Takarazuka costume, let alone a whole revue, haha.) 

One comment I wish I had mentioned on my survey is that their subtitles are terrible. The texts associated with these dances are all somewhat baffling, but they make sense because they’re poetic. I guess they wanted translations that were minimal so they wouldn’t distract the audience from the dancing, but their translations seemed to fail tests of literalness and beauty both. (I mean, I don’t know the texts so maybe not, but I like to think I have a decent ear for the variety of Classical Japanese known as Ridiculous Chanting Play Language at this point.)