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Ancient stories told entirely through a gesture

THE ACTOR walks to the stage with long-drawn-out motions as though he is subordinated to a completely different time and space. His face is motionless. A single frail gesture is expected to tell stories of passion, loss and hope. That particular evening the actor is playing Minamoto Yoshitsune who, disguised as a servant, is escaping from the anger of his brother, the shogun, in a play called Ataka. But the next day, the same actor could very well be a ghost on the stage of the Kyoto Kanze Kaikan Noh Theatre.

THE ACTOR walks to the stage with long-drawn-out motions as though he is subordinated to a completely different time and space. His face is motionless. A single frail gesture is expected to tell stories of passion, loss and hope. That particular evening the actor is playing Minamoto Yoshitsune who, disguised as a servant, is escaping from the anger of his brother, the shogun, in a play called Ataka. But the next day, the same actor could very well be a ghost on the stage of the Kyoto Kanze Kaikan Noh Theatre.

Without proper preparation Noh theatre can be quite challenging to an audience outside of Japan since one needs to transcend time, perception and values, as this is not only an art form from a very different culture but also one that is at least 650 years old, Petko Slavov, a Bulgarian scholar who studies Noh at Osaka University, told The Slovak Spectator.

As to whether Noh could find an approving audience in central and eastern Europe, Ida Hledíková of the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (VŠMU) in Bratislava, said that traditional Japanese theatre – whether it is Noh, Kabuki or Bunraku – are well-received in this region, as proven by full houses whenever Japanese theatre, dance or music is performed in the region.

“Today, in times of technical progress it is possible to transfer Asian theatre performances,” Hledíková told The Slovak Spectator, adding that bringing such performances into a culturally different environment has its appeal but is also very demanding. “It is possible, for example, to sensitively shorten the play in terms of dramaturgy since we know that the traditional performances last several hours, sometimes even the whole night.”

Slavov noted that in modern-day Japan, the traditional Noh play can no longer be performed as it used to be in ancient times, when it was developed to celebrate a deity. Throughout the 15th and 17th century theatres performed as many as five Noh plays in one day, so it took from morning till sunset to see the complete performance.

Hledíková said that watching a several-hours-long Noh performance without knowledge of the elements of the set of signs might be the most demanding aspect for a European viewer since Asian theatre first of all is a theatre of symbols and signs and at least some of those signs and their meaning must be decoded. Nevertheless, she added that the performances are interesting through their colourfulness and musicality alone.

According to Slavov, the means of expression in Noh have many levels of impact, so even if one does not understand the language, a viewer can still grasp the mood of the play by watching the gestures.

Hledíková said that neither Noh nor any other forms of traditional Japanese theatre are currently taught in Slovakia. However, during the class on the history of puppet theatre at the Department of Puppet Art of the Theatre Faculty of VŠMU, students can devote two terms to the study of Asian theatre, adding that in Asian cultures many forms of puppet and non-puppet theatres are closely intertwined, if not in terms of techniques, then in dramaturgy.

“We devote several lectures to Noh theatre since it is the oldest form of the three basic kinds of Japanese theatre,” said Hledíková. “Our students show great interest in Japanese and Asian theatre in general.”

Five schools of Noh theatre emerged over the centuries and continue to exist today. According to Hledíková, a positive turn in preserving traditional Noh theatre emerged in the second half of the 20th century when the National Noh Theatre was established in Japan in 1983.

“Japanese say that Noh theatre has stopped evolving, which is partially true, because the actors don't accept new means of expression and stick to the established ones,” Slavov explained. “After all, what we call ‘Noh’ is the whole compendium of ancient means of expression and forms and if we change any of them it will stop being Noh in the strictest sense.”

According to Slavov, Noh is a demanding art form and one needs to put in much effort to be able to completely enjoy it – something that some members of the younger generations are naturally reluctant to do.

“But I'm sure Noh will always keep its place in the hearts of the people. In a way it plays the role of an anchor for the cultural identity of all Japanese,” Slavov said. “Noh is an art not only to watch, but also to experience and learn from. More and more Japanese come to the theatre to try to learn to sing and dance like the actors. In this way they train not only their voices and bodies but also learn proper manners, develop an interest for poetry, and can be in a space-time so different from their own.”

The penetration of Noh into our cultural context would be very interesting as with all original cultural traces from the Asian continent, Hledíková said.

“An example could be the performance of traditional puppet theatre by the Tokyo-based group Shinnai Joruri and that of Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo in November 2009 at the Slovak National Theatre,” said Hledíková.

Nishikawa Koru and Turuga Wakasanojo, two masters of puppet and music animation, during their visit to Bratislava supported by the Japanese Embassy and the Department of Puppet Art of VŠMU organised a two-day workshop for students of VŠMU, Hledíková said, adding that the workshop – where the students actually touched the Asian culture when they animated the Japanese puppets – was very successful and both sides showed enthusiasm and interest in further cooperation.

After returning to Bulgaria, Slavov, who is learning to perform Noh and has a very strong bond with his master, Yamamoto Akihiro sensei, with whom he is planning a series of workshops and performances in Bulgaria as well as other countries in eastern Europe, plans to build further bridges through Noh theatre.

“Maintaining a connection with the art means maintaining a connection with the people who sustain it,” Slavov emphasised.

(Beata Balogová visited Japan last year through the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry’s programme for visiting foreign journalists.)

Dominika Uhríková contributed to this report

Topic: Foreigners in Slovakia


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