Meet the other half

The other day I was doing some winter clothes shopping at the local Uniqlo store when something peculiar happened. For the past couple of weeks I have been living in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture), a small, yet historically relevant village where the ‘Asian-other’ population (Korean and Chinese) is rather large, while ‘Western-looking people’ are almost unknown. I am now getting used to people staring at me when I go to the local supermarket – something that never happened to me in places such as Kyoto or Osaka. Anyway, what happened at Uniqlo was much more interesting than the usual grannie freezing at my sight in the middle of the miso aisle. A group of 4 kids (5 to 7 years old I would say) and their mum where also checking out clothes when they bumped into me. The mother was holding a 5th baby in her arms and I could tell from her built and facial features that she was half-Japanese, half-caucasian, probably American. I am not good at numbers and genealogy, but I would say that if she were half, her kids should be at least 1/4th something (either Japanese or Western, depending on the father). Fact is that the 4 kids where literally shocked at my sight. They forgot about their mum and started following me. They would not speak to each other but just stare with huge, glaring eyes. What were they looking at? What did they see? I should say that this is not the first bunch of kids I meet in Dazaifu, but their reaction was completely different: Japanese kids might be curious to check out how a foreigner looks like, but they are usually not so insistent. This group of kids, instead, was literally x-raying me, speechless, with eyes so big that I could see my face reflected in them… or was this what they actually saw in mine?

I might be wrong here, assuming much about their background that I don’t know, but I had the clear impression that these guys, growing up in the countryside, with almost zero exposure to foreigners, saw in my face, completely different from what they are used to in their everyday life, something that belonged to them. It could be the face of their father, or uncle, or grandpa. It certainly isn’t that of their school teacher, even of her mother: it is alien to the models they apprehend in their everyday-life. The encounter with something that somehow belongs to them, though they still cannot recognise it as such, shocked these kids as much as it shocked me. I don’t know whether their mum realised what was going on or not (she was very busy with her baby) and I was left to wonder whether this encounter became a topic for conversation or not. It surely was a very, very interesting experience for me…

Noh Chant and Dance Lessons in Milan, Italy

16 ottobre 2011, Apertura corso di Danza e Canto del Teatro Noh

From internationalnohinstituteitaly

Un’opportunità per studiare e provare il canto e la danza del Noh, secondo la tradizione della scuola Kongoh, con la Maestra Monique Arnaud

 Inizio del corso con stage intensivo:  Domenica 16 ottobre 2011

Il corso sarà strutturato in: Lezioni individuali, Lezioni collettive di avviamento allo studio del Noh (gruppi di max 5 persone), Allievi uditori

Documentary on Keiko Fukuda, Judo’s Only Female 10th Degree (via What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?)

A beautiful example for all women involved in the often sexist world of Japanese traditional arts.

“The belt ranks for women were very old fashioned and sexist. There was nothing above 5th degree for women.” -Keiko Fukuda A trailer for Yuriko Gamo Romer’s documentary Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful: The Story of Keiko Fukuda, Grand Mistress of Judo, which will be released in 2012 by Flying Carp Productions. The last surviving student of Kanō Jigorō, the founder of judo … Read More

via What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

Performing what does not belong

On Monday 28th March I attended Dr. Matthew Cohen‘s performance A Dalang in Search of Wayang at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London. Besides his many achievements as an academic, Matthew is a trained dalang or puppeteer of the wayang kulit tradition of Java. Matthew’s piece is a fascinating act between puppetry, stand-up (in this case ‘sit-down’) comedy, and philosophic research, in which Matthew as dalang, in a semi-schizophrenic dialogue with his own puppets, and with the audience, questions himself about the how, the why, and the what it is to perform a tradition of a far-away place to an audience that does not belong to the same cultural territory of that tradition.

Matthew’s performance is certainly inspiring for people like myself, who live this condition of cultural displacement as feature of their everyday life. The questions that the performance raised are indeed pointing straight to the meaning of our lives as performers and scholars across the borders. Rather than discussing themes of universality and interculturality in general terms, Matthew’s endeavour is an intimate, but frank reflection not just on the effectiveness or possibility, but on the very meaning of performing an ‘other’ performance tradition abroad.

Matthew’s questions are something I can very much sympathise with. Many times I found myself confronting audiences that knew nothing of Japan (let alone of Noh) besides geishas and sushi. The frustration of incommunicability, and a slight sense of superiority that derives from the thought of how much your efforts would be appreciated somewhere else, are sometimes difficult to bear. An audience that cannot understand the language, the symbolism, the dramatic devices of performance is an element of extraordinary resistance to what the performers tries to do. It needs to be instructed, nurtured, taken care of. By doing this, I sometimes wonder if we are not trying to transform this audience into something familiar to us, bringing it with our sphere of confidence. What does this mean, then? Is this an act of covert manipulation of the audience’s identity? Are we trying to create a bush league of our beloved and indulging original audience? Or, conversely, do we not realise that this ‘ignorant’ audience is the most indulging one, while informed ‘authentic’ audience would just kick our asses because or our poor skills?

There are profound ethical questions embedded in the reflection that Matthew put in the form of a much enjoyable comic act. To what extent can we call the tradition we are dedicating our life to ‘ours’? How can we then pretend to be ‘cultural ambassadors’ of something which does not really belong us, and why in the world should we fight against the resistance of an audience that can sometimes hardly hear us, if what we fight for does not belong us? Much intercultural scholarship has attested that we ‘Westerners’ cannot appropriate ‘Asian’ art and expect it to be ours, and I think this is fair enough, especially when one sees this concept in a larger scale political and economic frame. However, I would lie if I said that Noh ‘does not belong to me’, or that I am just ‘borrowing it for a couple of hours’ for my little demonstration. I’m sorry – I don’t sell post-cards.

There are ways to be more or less transparent in the way we undertake this act of moving culture across borders. What I was particularly pleased with in Matthew’s piece was the honesty of his presence. Dressed in a traditional cloth as a skirt, but wearing a trunk shirt on the top, Matthew did not pretend to hide what cannot be hidden (his not being a son of the land that gave birth to the tales he tells through wayang), and went about his performance in a constant dialogue with himself, and with the others who were watching him, without exposing the exoticism of Java. Rather than stating, Matthew was asking. One of the dangers of tradition is immobility, petrification of the form as petrification of the mind. It is thanks to unorthodoxy and disturbance that tradition can find stimuli for renovation. And yet there are ways to poke the boundaries of tradition without necessarily destroying it, or subverting its order – as long as questions like Matthew’s keep on being asked, and our many ‘others’ keep on listening.

Polish – Japanese Noh diplomacy: Chopin and ‘The Piano Tuner’

Inter-cultural theatre plays involving Noh and other performance forms are not mere artistic endeavours, but acts with strong political relevance.

This seems to be the case of The Piano Tuner (in Polish ‘Stroiciel fortepianu‘), a Noh play written by Jadwiga Maria Rodowicz who is (at once) a Japanese Noh scholar, the ambassador of Poland in Japan, and was a long-time member of the famous experimental Polish theatre group Gardzienice. The combination of these three elements contains an east/centre/west triad that marks the sign of the times. Claudel was ambassador of France in Japan for six years, at a time when being ambassador did not require knowing Japanese culture.. or even Japanese language! The influence of Japanese theatre in its work has been long studied, yet Noh does not seem to have revolutionised his conception of theatre. Many Western theatre practitioners (including Grotowski, of whom Gardzienice’s leader Staniewski was a disciple) claim influence of Noh in their production… yet we can hardly find Noh specialists among them.

I have not seen The Piano Tuner yet but certainly its premises are much alluring. It is not clear what the non-Noh elements will be (besides piano and costumes), but the plot and the characters clearly reveal the attempt to make interculturalism the main theme of this play.

Below is an extract from the original article, to be found here:

Warsaw’s Witkiewicz Studio Theatre hosts the premiere of the first ever Polish Noh production – a major form ofJapanese classical dance theatre – performed by the legendary Tessenkai Theatre Company from Tokyo

Jadwiga Maria Rodowicz, a well-known Orientalist specialising in the history of Japanese drama and theatre aesthetics, is responsible for the drama’s text, entitled “The Piano Tuner”. Since 2008 Rodowicz has been Polish ambassador to Japan, and from 1979-89 she was a leading member of the acclaimed “Gardzienice” theatre group.

The drama plots a symbolic meeting between two renowned artist friends in the enchanted garden at Nohant, namely Fryderyk Chopin and Eugène Delacroix. Having grown weary of Paris, the ageing Delacroix pays a visit to Nohant. In a strange vision he encounters Chopin, with whom he is able to engage in masterful debates about art, music and Chopin’s own attempts to mediate between his Polish and French identities…

Chopin-Noh Project calendar of events:

  • Premiere of ‘The Piano Tuner’ – three performances on February 17, 18 & 19 at 19:00, at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre in Warsaw
  • Promotion of Jadwiga Rodowicz’s new book ‘Boski Dwumian’ (jointly curated by the Jerzy Grotowski Institute) – 17:00 on February17 at the Witkiewicz Studio Theatre
  • Theatre workshop (open to the public) given by members of the Tessenkai Theatre Company – from 13:00 – 15:00 on February 19 and again from 11:00 – 13:00 on February 20 at the Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy, ul. Miodowa 22/24
  • Partial performance of “The Piano Tuner” in the nave of the Holy Cross Church (ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 3) on February 20 at 13:50.
  • Repost: Interview with Ogamo Rebecca Teele

    Ogamo Rebecca Teele is a Noh actress, mask carver, translator and scholar; she is the coordinator of the International Noh Institute, led by Noh Master-Actor Udaka Michishige. It is also thanks to Rebecca-sensei’s efforts to pursue the way of Noh that I have been able to begin my journey through this art.

    I am copying here the full text of the interview that appeared on the Yomiuri Shimbun (Feb. 6, 2011).

    Wedded to her art, noh two ways about it.
    Yoshihiro Kitaura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

    KYOTO–Face-to-face at a rehearsal hall at the foot of Mt. Hiei in Kyoto, the elder U.S. teacher and her Australian pupil bowed and engaged in a traditional “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (thank you for your support).

    The teacher, noh actress Ribekka Ogamo, then began demonstrating a model performance, moving and lowering her center of gravity as if skating across some ice. She then coaxed her student into dancing more slowly and expressively.

    Ogamo, 61, whose real name is Rebecca Teele, has described noh as having ongoing inspiration on her life. She has been learning noh for 39 years under the tutelage of Master-Actor Michishige Udaka, 63, a professional noh actor of the Kongo school. Udaka has much praise for Teele, saying, “She is good at noh chants and her performance is also solid.”

    Born in Michigan, Teele first encountered noh as a child in Japan, at a performance she went to with her father who was then teaching at a university in Kansai.

    Teele was mesmerized by the scene facing her when she woke from a nap. Orotund noh chants, emotive noh masks and the subtle rustling of long skirts all contributed to a profound atmosphere on stage that left an indelible impression on the young girl.

    Teele, who later returned to the United States and graduated from high school there, majored in theater at a U.S. university. She thought while Western theater called on actors to possess certain physical charms, including a modicum of attractiveness, the noh she knew from Japan instead emphasized people’s spirituality. She thought she would be able to explore this theatrical expression, which she felt lacking in Western theater, by performing noh.

    As her obsession grew, she again visited Japan and observed many noh performances. Fascinated with the beauty of the works staged by the Kongo school, Teele decided in 1972 to become Udaka’s pupil, as he had previously accepted foreign students.


    Becoming Udaka’s pupil

    Despite being accepted into the Udaka school, Teele faced much difficulty. First, she had to practice sitting seiza-style on her heels. She had no difficulty speaking conversational Japanese but it was a challenge to understand the noh chants written in classical Japanese.

    Yet Teele was determined to succeed. Consulting her dictionary, she slowly made her way through many noh works. She also practiced the requisite chants in a loud voice at a riverside in the neighborhood.

    Meanwhile, swimming helped Teele developed a physique better suited to the art form and she eventually conquered movements such as how to shuffle properly. She was making her living working at an English conversation school and translating, but Teele was completely devoted to noh.

    Teele’s journey to become a noh master took nine years. Upon being admitted to join the Nohgaku Kyokai association–itself an unusual move–she identified herself as noh actor Ribekka Ogamo.

    “[Teele’s membership] has inspired Japanese disciples,” Udaka said.

    Teele, who also serves as secretariat chief of the International Noh Institute, a body comprising of overseas noh students among others, now herself teaches foreign students, her efforts a testament of her devotion to the art form.

    The work is not without its challenges. The quality of a noh performance depends not only on the actors’ expertise in traditional dances and chants but also how the noh masks are displayed to the audience.

    The significance of these principles is not always understood among beginner pupils hailing from overseas. According to Teele, she was once asked by a non-Japanese student whether it was acceptable to make small changes to the basic style of noh dancing.

    Teele also recalled a pupil from South America unable to imagine snow. On such occasions, Teele would advise the students to visit temples and shrines in Kyoto and look at pictures on display depicting the four seasons.

    In spite of the fact that many foreigners visit Japan to learn noh just like she did many years ago, Teele is disappointed their Japanese peers seem uninterested in learning the traditional art.

    In June last year, Teele took part in a performance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Udaka’s stage career. She played the main role in the program “Yuki” (snow), a snow spirit that dances in the moonlight for about one hour.

    The performance was even more remarkable as Teele danced while enduring severe pain in her left knee. She had fallen down some station stairs six months earlier and injured the knee, which had already been broken once before. The accident prevented Teele from rehearsing enough before the performance.

    “You should improve your dancing so that the noh mask becomes more expressive,” Udaka commented following her performance. His uncompromising attitude toward the art made Teele even more determined.

    Teele has one unrealized dream: To perform noh in the United States. She hopes to fulfill this by almost any means possible, her will unchanged from when she first decided years ago to devote herself to noh.

    (Feb. 6, 2011)

    Continue reading

    Japanese Expat Dancer carves her masks

    I know very little of Yayoi Hirano’s work but I found this interesting clip on YouTube which, in its brevity and simplicity, reveals the most basic issues of exportation of traditional Japanese theatre to the West, and hints at some of the most common reasons for contemporary artists who seek refuge from traditional regimentation elsewhere.

    I am unsure of the quality of the work here shown, but I would like to invite anyone in the Noh to check her description of the O-Kasshiki mask toward the end of the clip.


    Tomorrow I am embarking on a new journey to Japan.  After I began to practice Noh theatre I went back to Japan almost every spring in order to undertake training with Udaka Michishige in Kyoto. For someone like me, coming from a non-Japanese studies background, it is rather hard to find opportunities to go to Japan and study there. So far I always managed with travel grants and research funding. This year will be my first experience as ‘official’ exchange student at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Among the choices were Waseda and Keio – with all due respect, the exchange programme committee was a bit surprised to see that my first choice was Rits. However Kyoto is the city I love and the headquarters of Udaka-sensei’s International Noh Institute. I am going to stay there until September, entering then my 4th and final PhD year at Royal Holloway.

    This time in Kyoto is going to be very special. On 12 June 2010 I will take my first role as actor in a full Noh theatre performance, Makiginu, as companion of the main actor, or shite-tsure. The shite role will be taken by Monique Arnaud, advanced student of Udaka Michishige and licensed instructor of Noh (shihan). While this tsure is a rather static role, its function is primarily centred on the chant. As he opens the performance singing a rather long chant section, his responsibility is setting the mood of the play. I will post more information about this event as my training progresses.

    The other reason that makes this performance particularly special for me is being on stage with Monique Arnaud, who has taught me Noh theatre while I was living in Italy. If I have a chance to be performing on a Noh stage today, I owe it to Monique-sensei. I will write more about her later on.

    As for now, wish me good luck.

    The Fisherman’s Daughter

    This is a demonstrative clip of Dr. Lee Stother’s The Fisherman’s Daughter, a Noh-inspired film/performance I had the chance to take part in during my first stay in Japan in Spring 2007. As a member of the International Noh Institute (Kongoh School), Lee has studied with Udaka Michishige and Ogamo Rebecca Teele in a number of different occasions, and the study and practice of Noh has greatly influenced her work as playwright/videomaker. Her The Fisherman’s Daughter is beautifully documented in the clip below.