One thing I have learned from the Kei’un-kai Memorial performance 2014

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.

Maibayashi: Toru. Shite:Diego Pellecchia
Maibayashi: Toru. Shite:Diego Pellecchia

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), butai jiutaiupstage 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/kyuTalking 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.

Here I was sitting
Here I was sitting

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.

To teach, to learn

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.

A stack of utaibon chant books on my desk - let it grow, let it grow!
A stack of utaibon chant books on my desk – let it grow, let it grow!

Dancing with your iPhone

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.

School or ryu?

When I introduce myself or talk about my training in Noh, I often find myself in need to explain what I mean by ‘Kongō school’ (金剛流 Kongō-ryū). There is a common misunderstanding deriving from the use of the word ‘school’ (or it. scuola; fr. école; ger. Schule – it extends to all European languages) as translation of the Japanese ryū. Since many have asked me to explain what exactly a ‘Noh school’ is, I would like to use this space to clarify a couple of things regarding this matter.

The Kongo School stage
The Kongo School stage

The Kongō school, to which I belong, is one of the five stylistic schools of shite actors (the others being Kanze, Komparu, Hōshō, and Kita). ‘School’ is none other than a free translation of ryū (lit. ‘current’, or ‘flow’), a word defining a performance style peculiar to a certain group of actors who are organised in a ‘guild’, a pyramid structure on top of which is the iemoto (lit. ‘foundation/origin of the house’). These ryū are the contemporary configuration of troupes of performers called za, which emerged in the Muromachi period, and that later underwent a process of professionalisation that led to the creation of ryū specialised in particular roles and instruments. Various styles, or ‘ways of performing’ a specific element of Noh become formalised during the Edo period, multiplying the possible combinations of chant, dance, drum and flute performance when these elements come together on stage. In fact, one of the difficulties performers need to face is getting used to a variety of styles in order to be able to perform with more than one ryū, because all performing roles (as shite actors are grouped in the five ryū mentioned above, waki, kyogen, taiko, ko-tsuzumi, ō-tsuzumi, fue – all have different ryū). For example, a Kongō-ryū shite could perform with a Fukuō-ryū waki or a Takayasu-ryū waki, with a kō-ryū or okura-ryū ko-tsuzumi, etc. (However, ryū are not represented equally across the territory, which makes it so that some ryū always get to perform with a certain other ryū more often than others… it’s getting complicated… I might need to write another post to explain this).

The Noh ryū system

Anyway, each ryū has a iemoto on top of it, and his (male) heirs immediately under him. However, ryū are also composed of other families which have been affiliated with a certain ryū, and might to some extent have developed a particular ‘style within the style’. Although dependent to the iemoto supreme leader, such families achieve a certain degree of independence which has often led (and still leads) to power struggles within the ryū. The obvious example is the Umewaka family, a formerly independent group which were incorporated into the Kanze school at the beginning of the Edo period (early seventeenth century). When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Umewaka family attempted to declare independence, it was excommunicated from the Kanze school by the iemoto, only to rejoin a few years later. Disputes like this are common in the history of Noh, and still continue today.

In short, a ryū is a conglomerate of individuals, some of whom are descendants of families that have been in the Noh profession for generations, while others are associates of these families – they can be amateur students who turn to professionalism, or relatives adopted into the professional family. The iemoto family, from which the style takes the name, is the highest ranking within the school. The iemoto himself, as the ultimate leader of the school, holds the rights to grant teaching licenses, to authorise performances, to revise and publish scripts (hence to earn publication revenues), to accept and to expel members, etc.

This is to say that a Noh ‘school’ is not an educational institution like a drama academy, with lectures, practice rooms, recitals, etc. Noh actors do practice and perform recital, but their training and performance is not structured and regulated as in a Western-style conservatory. There is no ‘school building’ where all trainees report to in the morning. Most young professionals are either born into families of professionals, or become apprentices (uchi-deshi, or house-apprentice) to a professional. This means they either visit the home/practice space (the two do not necessarily coincide) of their teacher, or else they actually live in the home/practice space. This second option, called sumi-komi (live-in) is normal when the teacher is the iemoto or a high-ranking actor from an affluent family with a long heritage in the Noh profession, simply because these two figures are the only ones likely to own a stage as well as facilities big enough to serve the purpose of training disciples. An additional reason is that proximity to the origin of tradition (i.e. the iemoto) is likely to provide the ‘purest quality of technique’, as opposed to learning from another teacher, whose style will be similar but different from that of the iemoto. Finally, learning directly from the iemoto allows a performer to… well, claim that he/she has learnt directly from the iemoto: it is pedigree. For example, my teacher (Udaka Michishige) was uchi-deshi of the previous iemoto (Kongō Iwao II), which means he had direct transmission, while I am removed by one degree. In a small school like the Kongō school, undergoing an uchi-deshi training period with the iemoto is the only way to ensure a young actor is exposed to all the necessary kinds of knowledge he/she will need in order to become a full professional.

I feel like I have made things more complex than I intended to – feel free to ask for clarification if you need to!

Ritual purification of the stage

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 Okina doll 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 omikia 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.
Constantin Stanislavski

Noh mask carving atelier – special opening

Udaka Michishige’s Noh mask atelier will open to guest observers on January 9th, 16th and 23rd from 14:00 to 17:00 or from 18:00 to 21:00. This is a great opportunity for those interested in masks and in the mask-making process, as well as in the use of the masks in actual performance: Michishige is the only Noh actor who is also a skilled mask carver, regularly using his own masks on stage. In 2010, Michishige published the photobook The secrets of Noh Masks (Kodansha/Oxford) with photographer Shuichi Yamagata. I have posted more about Michishige’s activities as mask carver here.

If you are in Kyoto don’t miss this chance to be introduced to the world of Noh masks – both Japanese and English speakers are welcome! Observers are admitted FREE OF CHARGE

To reserve a place, or for more information, please feel free to contact me here.

Shintai, for roles of young gods, by Udaka Michishige (Photo: Fabio Massimo Fioravanti)
Shintai, for roles of young gods, by Udaka Michishige (Photo: Fabio Massimo Fioravanti)

Practice notes #3 technique

photo-1Technique is what is left when you turn off emotions. Knowing every step of the dance, every modulation of the chant, understanding the meaning of each word and movement… none of this is really helpful on stage unless you have real control of the switch between emotion and technique. This ability cannot be acquired through intellectual understanding. Odd as it may seem, I feel it is more of a physical condition than a mental one.

This is why there is no shortcut to true skill. No intensive workshop. No crash course. Physical practice requires time. A matter of choice, I guess.

Practice notes #2 movement and costume

photo-1Today I had okeiko with my teacher’s eldest son Udaka Tatsushige. He gave me precise instructions about various moments of the play which I need to improve. Among all suggestion there is one thing I need to be particularly aware of: if my movements are too dynamic or extreme, if they are too ‘expressive’, it will be to the detriment of the costume. Reflecting on this I realised how much the costume, along with the mask, already does a lot of the narration just by being there on stage. It is important to establish a good relationship with the costume, restraining your movement, compressing your energy. If your acting crosses the line, the costume will disappear, only your movements will be visible. The costume has been perfected through centuries to serve its expressive purpose on stage: let’s make sure it has enough room to say what it has to say.