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Timeless Expression

In these fast-paced times, where we are bombarded with spectacles that compete to be flashier, more action-packed, and more hi-tech than the next, it was a joy to experience an evening of charm and timeless simplicity. Japan Society’s program “Nihon Buyo in the 21st Century: From Kabuki Dance to Boléro” demonstrated that there are classic, traditional expressions that are adaptively incorporating contemporary influences and exist as current, expandable, living traditions.

Performance

Nihon Buyo in the 21st Century: From Kabuki Dance to Boléro

Place

Japan Society, New York, NY, January 24, 2024

Words

Karen Greenspan

“Boléro – The Legend of Anchin and Kiyohime.” Photograph by Richard Termine

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Nihon buyo, literally meaning “Japanese dance,” is a traditional performing art from Japan that is based on kabuki dance technique. The term, coined 150 years ago, refers to a genre of dance that borrows from many different dance traditions developed over more than a thousand years. With a repertoire encompassing works inspired by noh theater and folktales along with adaptations from kabuki plays and folk dances, the refined genre is intended as a public entertainment for the stage. Today, dancers not only inherit classical techniques and repertoire, but also innovate new expressions as was evident in the nihon buyo production at Japan Society. The program was remarkable in that it presented a traditional work that felt refreshingly current alongside a new work that was exquisitely classic. The dance pieces were programmed along with several purely musical numbers performed live by traditional musicians. 

The first dance, a lighthearted work called “Toba-e,” premiered in 1819 in Tokyo (then Edo). Inspired by a series of animal and human caricatures drawn by a twelfth-century Buddhist priest called “Scrolls of Frolicking Animals,” the dance depicts the interactions between a kitchen servant and an errant mouse. Accompanied by six live musicians seated onstage, the comical dance uses theatrical body language to spin a satirical tale in which a cunning mouse draws empathy from the kitchen servant, who wants to rid the house of him. During the performance I attended, renowned choreographer and dancer Hanayagi Genkuro played the role of the servant with comic finesse. The stylized movements and facial expressions of the servant pair humorously with the mouse’s acrobatic movements, mime sequences, and manipulation of his human-sized mouse costume (as when he twirls his long tail like a feather boa). Supertitles translate song lyrics laced with racy humor as when the vocalist sings of the mouse’s romantic feelings for the servant. Just then, the furry creature leaps amorously into the servant’s arms. Remembering himself, the servant tries to capture the pesky creature in a wooden box. After a cat-and-mouse chase, the mouse emerges victorious as he pins down the servant, who gesticulates frantically for his release.

“Toba-e” performed at Japan Society’s program “Nihon Buyo in the 21st Century: From Kabuki Dance to Boléro.” Photograph by Richard Termine

The second half of the program featured a recent nihon buyo work that premiered in 2021 titled “Boléro – The Legend of Anchin and Kiyohime” set to Ravel’s Boléro. The idea for the dance was conceived by the late Hanayagi Jyuo II, former Grand Master of the Hanayagi-ryu School, while he was serving as an advisor to Maurice Béjart during his work with the Tokyo Ballet. Eventually choreographed by the Grand Master’s protégé, Hanayagi Genkuro, this unique combination of East and West retells an eleventh-century Buddhist story, “The Legend of Dojoji.”

The narrative revolves around a Buddhist monk named Anchin, who is on a religious pilgrimage. He stops at an inn along the trail to spend the night, and the innkeeper’s daughter Kiyohime falls in love with him. Anchin is unable to refuse her advances and vows to stop by on his return. But, of course, he never does. Kiyohime, consumed by obsessive passion and then rage, turns into a giant serpent, seeks out Anchin, and chases him into the bell at Dojoji Temple. There, she burns him to death. 

The sublime choreography for five dancers flows from one memorable image to the next in a refined stream of motion and stillness that enacts the narrative. Four of the dancers portray Anchin and his brother monks while kabuki actor and dancer Azuma Tokuyo plays the onnagata role of the heartbroken, Kiyohime. The specialized art of the onnagata, cultivated by male actors who perform female roles, comes from the dance’s roots in kabuki theater, which was restricted to an all-male performing art form by the ruling authorities in 1653. Today, however, nihon buyo incorporates female performers.

Japan Society’s program “Nihon Buyo in the 21st Century: From Kabuki Dance to Boléro.” Photograph by Richard Termine

Beginning serenely to the measured and steady snare drum of the Boléro score, the dancers are lit in silhouette as they move in ritualistic formations of Japanese monks in procession and  prayer. Kiyohume is costumed in a rich, white kimono with white make-up and a long-haired wig, while the others wear simple performer’s attire and carry fans. The dance and the music gather steam reflecting the growing intensity of Kiyohime’s emotions. 

Essential to the choreography is the quintessential Japanese prop─the fan. Moving the story along, it represents various characters and scenic elements. In this dance, a single collapsed fan held vertically symbolizes a Buddhist monk. When held open in both hands, it symbolizes a scripture; when held overhead, it signifies a traveler’s hat. The dancers then create undulating group formations while each one holds two open fans to portray traveling through the mountainous landscape. Finally, the fans are transformed into the serpent’s body as it encircles Anchin and takes its revenge. 

In the final scene, Kiyohime faces the audience. She flips her elongated sleeves around with decisive resolve, turns, and walks toward Anchin center stage. The lights go red as confetti (ashes) fall from the rafters, and the “Boléro” ends as the great Dojoji Temple bell sounds. 

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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