Is this the future of Noh Theatre?

It will take me a few days to digest what I saw yesterday night at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London. Theatre Nohkagu’s double bill of Kiyotsune and ‘shinsaku eigo noh’ Pagoda, written by British playwright Jannette Cheong and Richard Emmert has been a rich experience, and I already know I will want to come back to my notes again and again later. I would rather not give a review of the play, as it would be a limiting practice for something so formative. Aesthetic evaluation apart, the central question rising is ‘what is Noh’? Previously, in SOAS canteen, Emmert and I were talking about the nature of Noh from the perspective of the foreigner, and the purpose and future of Noh in English. The mind immediately goes to European opera, whose language was transformed from Italian into French, English, German, etc. We now accept all these languages as if they legitimately belonged to the opera world. My teacher Udaka Michishige was never involved in such transcultural Noh productions, however his judgment on postmodern experiments is rather positive, as they might be seeds that cross-fertilise a theatre form on the verge of stall. Experiments done in the West might well be source of inspiration for Japanese-based performers. Yokomichi Mario’s heavily debated Takahime, (re)appropriation of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, already provided an example in the 1950s. It is pointless to discuss the value of Noh in English on the basis of personal taste as what floats on the surface of aesthetic judgment is not meant to stay. Let us look at what this new way of writing and performing Noh is telling us, about how issues of authenticity and cultural ownership have to be re-examined. Whose Noh was that? Will Noh be multilingual in the future? Probably its performers will be.

Some reflections on the Symposium Japanese Theatre Transcultural

I am back from the Symposium Japanese Theatre Transcultural: German and Italian Perspectives held in Trier University in collaboration with Università Cà Foscari, Venice 27-29 November 2009. Thanks to a wonderful organisation and to the good-will of a good number of students from the Japanologie department (from Germany, Belgium, Japan, etc) the conference was a success and all participants were satisfied with the fruitful discussions on the theme of the encounter of Japanese theatre with Italy and Germany. Organisers Andreas Regelsberg and Stanca Scholz-Cionca did a great job, indeed.

Germany boasts a huge tradition both in Japanese studies and in theatre studies: it is very much interesting to attend conferences outside the anglo-saxon environment and notice so many differences in style and scholarly approach. Any international student working in the UK knows well how British research tends to be critical-theory oriented, sometimes to the extreme: PhD students are now sorted by ‘who they use’ (be it Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, etc.) rather then what they write about. It is almost impossible to write a paper without at least one or two references to post-modern philosophers, whose theories are often inappropriately borrowed and abused. Theory for theory’s sake. For people like me, coming from a different academic background, it is hard to cope with what over here sometimes seems as the only possible way of academic enquiry. I have heard similar comments from students from France, Hong Kong, Greece, Germany, Japan, etc. It goes without saying that critical theories offer transversal perspectives necessary for the development of a thesis. However, the oversimplification and labelling of modern philosopher has created a division between ‘primary sources’ on one hand, and ‘academic tools’ on the other. Not to mention the fact that ‘acceptable’ critical perspectives only come from recent and mostly, of course, Western philosophy.

The most interesting aspect of the symposium was the combination of papers by scholars and practitioners – if this is rather common in UK and USA, in Germany and Italy it is still rare. This has been a successful attempt at an attempt at bridging the fictional gap between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ as well as between ‘Japan’ and ‘the West. There is so much to learn from the language of the practitioner, so different from that of the onlooker. Practice is all that theatre is about, after all. We are all looking forward for this to happen again.

Candle crowns

 

lucia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following up my previous post, and since December festivals are getting closer, I could not help associating the madwoman of the Noh play Kanawa 鉄輪 and the Scandinavian representation of St. Lucia. Obviously the two iron crowns with candles have very different meanings – while the Japanese is part of a revenge ritual of a jealous woman, the Scandinavian candles are symbols of the return of the light after the 13th of December.
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Japanese Theatre Transcultural: German and Italian Perspectives

Next week I will talk at the International Symposium Japanese Theatre Transcultural: German and Italian Perspectives 27 – 29 November 2009. Universität Trier, Germany. Here is the abstract of my paper, entitled ‘The International Noh Institute of Milan: Transmission of Ethics and Ethics of Transmission in the transnational Context’.

The paper explores the intersection of aesthetics and ethics in Noh practice. Noel Pinnington (2006) has discussed the primacy of the concept of michi as ‘path through life’ in the writings of Zeami and Konparu Zenchiku, where spiritual and ethical virtues are a necessary condition for aesthetic achievement. Today Noh is taught in various contexts outside Japan, reflecting different agendas of teachers and trainees. How are the ethical aspects of Noh considered in contemporary non-Japanese teaching environments? What are the implications of introducing the ethics embedded in Noh practice outside its original context? Taking on Levinas’s ‘ethics of responsibility’, the paper will use theories of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave & Wenger 1992) to explore the community of learners and the teaching methodology of the International Noh Institute.

The end of it all

If there is something Noh teaches, and is really good at it, is to fight against expectations. What is an expectation? The logic conclusion of a process based on the probability of this occurrence to happen – this is mathematics. The possible conclusion of a process based on our hopes for this occurrence to happen – this is humanity.

In both cases, the focus of our thought is the aim of the path we are following, rather than the path itself. We struggle to keep the balance on the line we are stepping on – look down or on the sides and you only risk to fall. Hence, treading this path becomes an individual, autonomous process, excluding whatever happens around us. Reaching the end of the path is our only interest. There is a tendency to build up expectations on the target of our mission and its achievement becomes the symbol of what we are doing, but not seeing now, blinded by the light of the end of the tunnel. Humans are self-referential entities, with a tendency to consume, rather than live an experience. How to escape the projection of ourself in onto the world? How to be ‘otherwise than being’ (Levinas)?

Performing shimai abroad


18/09/09

Launch of the Centre for International Theatre and Performance Research at Royal Holloway University of London.

From the university website:

‘The Centre for International Theatre and Performance Research, in operation from 2009, is a key feature of the Department’s research strategy. It fosters research across a range of historical, geographical, political and methodological spheres to advance cutting-edge thinking on theatre and performance topics with a distinct international inflection. The centre operates as an intellectual and structural support for researchers of all levels, from postgraduate through to senior staff, and an umbrella for individual and collaborative projects within the Department. It also facilitates links with innovative research centres, projects and networks within and beyond Britain, as well as with local performing arts bodies and their interpretive communities. Although its focus is primarily on theatre and performance research, the Centre is interdisciplinary in both spirit and practice, incorporating perspectives from anthropology, history, musicology, literary studies, film and cultural geography.’

Prof. Helen Gilbert (founder and director of the Centre) kindly asked me, as PhD student in the department, and as Noh practitioner, to take part of the launch and give a little demonstration for the large audience attending the event. My choice fell on the shimai Tamura no kiri, the last dance of the shuramono (ghost warrior Noh) Tamura. After having performed quite a few times for international audiences not necessarily acquainted with Noh theatre, I realised it is rather counterproductive to feed in the expectation of Noh as slow, refined, and boring. The kiri section of a shuramono piece is instead dynamic, energetic, powerful. In this case, the general Tamuramaro recounts how he annihilated a horde of demonic invaders with the help of Kannon’s powers (Kannon is the Japanese name of the Bodhisattva of Mercy Avalokitesvara).

After the performance, I received several interesting comments which generally expressed the surprise of many of the spectators in seeing such a dynamic Noh dance. The general expectation is that of stasis and sophistication and not of strong chant and jumps. The excitement of the comments and the numerous questions I received made me reflect on how little of Noh is known outside Japan. Last time I attended a full-day of Noh, with a piece performed for each of the five categories, I was amazed by how plays differ from each other – to the point that I had the illusion of seeing different genres on stage, not only Noh.

A few days after this day, I attended a performance by Noh professionals somewhere else – they chose to perform a sophisticated piece of the 3rd (women) group. They literally killed the audience, who were by rights unprepared to enjoy this complex play. The performance simply confirmed the commonplace of Noh as slow, cryptic, difficult and boring genre. I myself was bored, probably influenced by the communal spirit that sometimes takes over the stalls.

This again reveals the deep misunderstanding, or even indifference of many Japanese Noh performers for the needs of an audience which is not the usual, domesticated spectatorship they are used to in Japan. Noh offers such a great variety of plays which can be enjoyed by all sort of people – why performing Kokaji (The Fox Swordsmith) for children at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo while we get slow Genji Monogatari pieces? There is a lot to say about Orientalist assumptions … what about Occidentalist assumptions? We still have a long way to come…

(Photo © Jannie Rask)

Dramatic launch for new Drama and Theatre research centre

Centre for International Theatre and Performance Research

Cleaning up

Studying Noh theatre requires a little bit of housekeeping before you start. Cleaning means preparing a space for someone or for something to come and getting ready to receive it. As a host prepares to receive a guest, the body and the mind of the trainee (and here we could argue on the distinction made) get rid of layers of dust that have been unconsciously covered floor and furniture and open the windows, letting fresh air come in.

‘The trainee needs to be like an empty cup’, says Udaka Michishige, my Noh teacher. Although it is utopic to talk in terms of ‘neutrality’, the trainee needs to get as close as possible to a condition in which he is not influenced by his pre-existent knowledge, experience, existence. Or at least it has to remain confined to an unconscious, unexplicit level. Without the will to put your former ‘I’ aside, the master will not be able to transmit a knowledge which is handed over in a one-to-one training process. I now wonder if the adjective 素直 (sunao – meek) doesn’t have any connection with the quasi-homophone verb 砂下ろし (sunaosuru – purify one’s stomach)…