On the value of time in training

Following up my previous post on the ‘speed of time’, I have resurrected this reflection, which has been sitting in my draft folder for a while… This post originally developed into another reflection on time and objectives, which I have cut as I would like to expand it somewhere else.

What is the value of time in Noh training?

Learning a ‘unit’ of Noh, be it a line or a movement, requires time. Just as much as a grammar rule requires time and practice in order to be absorbed and successfully used. A grammar rule of a second language could be explained and analysed in detail, it could be compared with a similar rule in our native language, but would this be enough to say that we are in command of that rule? The typical mistake of the inexperienced learner is using a piece of grammar, an idiomatic expression, a certain word, in a context that is not suitable for its use. In most cases, there is no way to learn the correct usage of a given expression if not by paying much attention when native speakers use it, and by attempting to use it, and learning from our mistakes. All in all, learning a language requires the necessary time for embodiment, not mere memorisation. Memorising the grammar book will not allow us to speak correctly.

What, then, is the purpose of learning something ‘intensively’ (i. e. concentrating one’s efforts over a short period of time)? What is the ‘intensive’ quality of time? What do we gain by that ‘intensive’ quality? In the case of Noh theatre, I think that time plays a crucial role in the learning process. There is much to say about this.

The speed of time

This year’s Kaki-kenkyūkai (summer training meeting) took place on August 12th at the Dentōgeinōkaikan in Ōtsu, on the Biwa lake. Unlike the Noh stages that belong to families, the  Dentōgeinōkaikan is ‘non-confessional’: it is used by various Noh groups. The venue is also used for other forms of performance and traditional arts, such as tea ceremony. This stage is very close to Miidera, a beautiful temple of important historical heritage, famous for its feud against the Enryaku-ji temple after a schism of the Tendai Buddhist sect, and for its bell, which is portrayed in the homonymous Noh play. This is not the first time for me to perform here: I already attended a summer training meeting last year, and I used the stage in order to rehearse for Monique Arnaud’s Makiginu in 2010. However, this year’s meeting was particularly thought-inspiring.

This is how the Dentōgeinōkaikan stage looks like.. when people are not on it. I am sorry for the lack of pictures, but it is not easy to run back and forth between gakuya (backstage) and stalls in order to take pictures. When a kai like this takes place, with more than 20 people involved, there is very little time for souvenir pictures, as your efforts and concentration are 100% projected towards observing, learning, and being ready to help whenever it is needed… I wish we had a professional photographer to document the day!

Kurai wa karukatta! (‘you were too light and superficial’!) Isogashikatta! (‘it looked like you were not in control of time, so you sped up everything’!) Hayakatta (‘you were too fast/too early’!)

These are the comments that I received for my attempt at Kiyotsune maibayashi. I was not expecting anything different: I knew that I was still too unsure of how to perform certain movements, and most of all of how to time myself properly and follow the hayashi and ji-utai in a meaningful way. In my view, being able to harmonise with the music really is one of the characteristic that distinguish an amateur from a professional. My only ‘consolation’ is that being ‘fast’ and ‘light’ (this being a consequence of not pacing pauses and movements appropriately) is a widely shared issue.

Amateurs (and, to be fair, professionals, too) of all arts share the same issue: when in doubt, they speed up. We don’t seem to be able to stay put and appreciate this, say, slow passage before a quick and abrupt stepping forward, or this pause, charged with symbolic meaning, where Kiyotsune stares West before jumping from the boat and drowning himself. ‘Gyutto shite!’ is a remark I often hear from my teacher. Gyutto is an onomatopoeic word suggesting tightening: in this case it means ‘be as compressed and concentrated as possible’. Though this seems to be possible during rehearsal, once on stage concentration and time-control seem to loosen up, and I cannot find that quality of compression I very much enjoy when I notice it in other performers. It seems that whenever the actual performance begins, my sense of time changes, and with it my ability to control and pace myself. Being able to sense the ma, the interval, or pause, which is central to Noh aesthetics, is crucial to a positive movement execution. 

But what does ‘sensing the ma‘ mean? Well I think part of this sensing is in fact sensual: in order to feel a pause, one must enjoy it – and in order to enjoy it, one must be present, there, and not let one’s mind wander off to other places, or – even worse – feel ‘performance anxiety’. We are so full of thoughts and worries about our future that we often forget that the purpose of being here.. is being here, not there! I am becoming too Zen-like now so I will stop here. I just wanted to say that I think that Noh is an activity that goes beyond the ‘mere’ artistic performance, as the polished surface of the big, resonating stage offers a mirror in front of which we confront with our fears and anxieties. I am pretty sure that this very much is what provides motivation and willpower to continue the study of this tradition.