Telling Stories with Movement–Kabuki Dance at the Japan Society
Last week, as part of its annual festivities marking Cherry Blossom season, the Japan Society presented a program of kabuki dance, performed by Bando Kotoji and his company of dancers, singers, and musicians (Marh 29-31). It was a remarkable evening of theatre, even if many aspects of kabuki are difficult for an untrained western eye (and ear) to penetrate. One can only skim the surface, and yet the surface is so elaborately beautiful, so delicate and refined, that it hardly matters. One can’t really evaluate, but one can admire.
As the program notes helpfully explained, what we were seeing was actually nihon buyo, an art-form whose name literally translates as “Japanese dance.” Its repertory is made up of “popular section from kabuki plays and pieces inspired by classical noh plays and folk tales.” The music, as in kabuki and bunraku theatre, is provided by shamisen—a stringed instrument with a long neck and three strings—and storytelling chanters, or gidayu. The program notes compared such evenings of nihon buyo to “an evening-length program consisting of a collection of prominent scenes from the classical ballet repertoire such as Odile’s 32 turning fouettés from Swan Lake.” The comparison goes only so far. Whereas such well-known ballet excerpts, frequently performed out of context at ballet galas, are generally short, spectacular displays of technical bravura, the repertoire of nihon buyo, at least as revealed by the program at the Japan Society, reads more like a series of visual poems or short stories. They can evoke a mood, like the rollicking opener, “Sanbaso”; or tell a story full of subtle symbolism, like “Cho No Michiyuki” (The Last Journey of the Two Butterflies); or create stunning images, like “Tamatori Ama” (The Pearl Diver); or recount dramatic happenings, such as the remembered battle-scene in “Yoshino-Yama” (Yoshino Mountain). There is virtuosity involved, of course, but it is of a more subtle, complicated kind; the effect of each piece sneaks up on you when you least expect it to. Each performer, from the actor-dancers to the chanters and shamisen-players, are part of a greater whole. This is no wham-bam demonstration of bravura.
I was particularly struck by three aspects of the performance: the skill and range of the chanters (especially Takemoto Koshiko); the powerful physical and facial mime of Bando Kotoji (leader of the group) and Furusawa Ufo; and the apparently limitless uses of the fan. I’ll start with the last. The fan, in each piece, was a tool that could metamorphose into just about anything: a butterfly, a lifeline pulling a diver up to the surface, a knife, a bow, an arrow. Not only could it represent hundreds of other items, but the fan is itself an object of beauty; its handling becomes yet another way of demonstrating the skill and poise of the performer. Illusion and esthetics become one.
The music, though unfamiliar to our ears, is also quite engrossing. The two shamisen string instruments were played in perfect unison, with one musician subtly indicating to the other the exact moment at which to begin and stop; the strings were plucked with a large wooden pick. The two players sat, ramrod still, blank-faced, throughout the proceedings. There was something strangely compelling about the twanging, insistent sound of these instruments; they provided a powerful vibration underpinning and structuring the action. And then there were the singers. I found myself watching the lead singer, Takemoto Koshiko, with as much interest as the dancer/actors. Koshiko is apparently something of an anomaly, a female gidayu chanter. But to describe her as female is almost limiting; with her voice, she is able to turn herself into any sex, any creature, any form, concrete or abstract. She narrates, makes onomatopeic sounds, impersonates one character then another, intones entire conversations. Again, one did not need understand the words (some of which were translated in supertitles) to be astonished by her range and artistry. Her evocation of the battle of Yashima (the scene with the bow and the arrow) was one of the high points of the evening. In another piece, “Tamatori Ama” (The Pearl Driver), a single musician (Fjii Hirokazu, a man) supported the action, singing and playing with great poetry and delicacy, adding layers of lyricism and pathos to the picture.
In some ways, nihon buyo is not so far from our consciousness. This is especially true of the mime, which recalls the great mimes of our own tradition: Marcel Marceau, Jean-Louis Barrault, the physical actors of Commedia dell’Arte (like Ferruccio Soleri, who recently performed Goldoni’s “Arlecchino Servitore di Due Padroni” at the Lincoln Center Festival). Bando Kotoji has one of those nervous, fascinating faces that can change mood or intention with the slightest alteration. His face is a mask, constantly shifting, taking us by surprise, telling stories with his eyes. At the Japan Society, his face and the chanting were in perfect harmony; like a cantaor and the dancer in flamenco, he and the singer were two sides of the same coin. I found myself laughing, not so much at his antics, but at the amazing expressivity of his face and body; every movement or shift in expression was calibrated for maximum effect.
Furusawa Ufo, the dancer/actress in “The Pearl Diver,” represented an altogether different kind of physical mime, based on the harmony and beauty of her movements (subtle, delicate), and the surprising illusions she could create with her body and face. At one point in the story, she mimed cutting open her flesh in order to conceal a treasure inside of her chest and carry it to her lover on land. The act was so brutal, so unexpected, that it made me jump in my seat, even though she was dressed in an elaborate, many-layered costume and used nothing sharper than a knife. I half expected to see blood flowing from her imaginary wound. Then, she mimed being pulled up to the surface by a lifeline (again, her fan) and one could see the life slowly ebbing from her body. The illusion was uncannily real, and at the same time incredibly beautiful.
At times like this, no translation was necessary.
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