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The Evolution of Noh

The genre of Noh theater and dance exists in our time thanks to important contributions by two nineteenth-century Americans. The first you’ll know. The story goes that when President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant toured the world after Grant had left office, they visited Japan, where, as the former American head of state and a famous military man, Grant was treated to a performance of a Noh play. Some treasured plays in that genre feature tragic laments for a lord felled in battle by warriors whose essential message is, as the Wanderers and Seafarers of Old English poetry—so similar to Noh in several ways—might have put it, “I alone have escaped to tell Thee,” a thought with which any veteran of the horrendous battles of the U.S. Civil War would have intuitively bonded. At that time, the Japanese government did not esteem the Noh tradition and was about to withdraw support from its major schools and troupes; period photos exist of props and costumes dumped into piles, ready for destruction. The Grants were being given a rare valedictory glimpse of a past about to be abandoned.

From left to right: Kamei Yosuke, Tomoeda Takehito, Narita Tatsushi, Makura Jido (Chrysanthemum Boy) at Japan Society Photo credit: © Ayumi Sakamoto

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Ulysses Grant is not famous for his appreciation of the performing arts; however, he could be. When the performance was over, he said that he didn’t have a clue as to what was being spoken or the specifics of what was being enacted; however, he had no reservation about its worthiness to be supported—that it must be. And with Grant’s insistence, the government support continued, which helps to account for how this delicate example of a specialty art of theater and dance continues to attract audiences five hundred years later, when many of the books and poetry scrolls of the same age continue to gather readerless dust.

The second American is not well-known today: the Italian-American art historian and professor of philosophy Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), whose love and respect for the Japanese arts, including performance, led to his teaching and translations of some of the oldest Noh scripts and to the Emperor Meiji’s award to him of the Order of the Rising Sun and the Order of Sacred Treasures, with the comment that Fenollosa “taught Japanese people about their own art.” (A fine, illustrated appreciation of this scholar is available online in a new column, by Joseph Houseal, the director of the Core of Culture organization)

Fenollosa’s widow gave his translations to the American poet Ezra Pound, who brought them to the attention of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and a contributor to the founding of the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, still going strong. Fenollosa’s translations of Noh inspired Yeats to write dance-plays, which the Abbey produced and which the critic Eric Bentley described as having “the beauty of structure of a Jamesian nouvelle.”[note]“Yeats as a Playwright,” Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 1948), 198[/note]

When culture is flourishing, those unpredictably international cross currents—whether owing to travel, to war, to emigration—make it inevitably cosmopolitan. Folk dances are local, and their development is at least partly, I believe, connected to the language, music, and natural environment of the dancers. However, the story of theatrical dance that enjoys longevity is often the story of international cross currents—a theme that links the chapters in my book Why Dance Matters.

What else is needed to insure the longevity of a dance practice? Noh offers a few suggestions.

Late last year, New York’s Japan Society hosted the Kita Noh School of Japan in two plays. (Kita Noh, whose late-sixteenth-century founding was contemporary with Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, is one of the five most important Noh troupes in Japan.)

“Makura Jido” (“Chrysanthemum Boy”), which takes place during the peaceful era of the Wei Dynasty (220-265 C.E.), features a dance solo for the title character—a boy who has committed a minor infraction against the emperor and, when the play opens, is discovered to have survived several hundred years of isolation near a mountain stream by drinking medicinal waters of eternal youth from a chrysanthemum leaf. His dance of some twenty minutes is two-footed and stately yet punctuated by moments of stillness and by sudden stampings that bring the spectacularly costumed dancer—a vision of fire and blood in a red and gold kimono—into momentary reconciliation with the largely drum-orchestra music and chanters. Depending on the context in which the dance is produced and on the feelings of the performer, the solo can be joyous or lamenting.

The author of the play is unknown, as is the first choreographer. However, the actor-dancer impersonating the Chrysanthemum Boy, Tomoeda Takehito (b. 1967), has had a distinguished career on paper; among his awards and honors is his designation as an Intangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government. I conducted the following interview with him on e-mail concerning what “choreography” means when speaking of his character’s ecstatic actions and what the possibilities are for a performer to bring something of himself to a work thought to be hundreds of years old, while maintaining its core identity.

How did you learn the dance?

The choreography for “Makura Jido” had been set long time ago and has been handed down that way. Since I was a teenager, I learned the choreography by watching my seniors and colleagues who had been assigned the role, as well as through my own repetitive training. In fact, the movements of Noh are similar to the process of learning a language, learning words and grammar, and creating sentences. There are several variations in the movements, but they are created according to certain rules. Expressing human emotions within these inorganic rules depends on the performer's ability and the accumulation of daily practice.

Did you contribute to the choreography?

This time, I added my own physical innovations to the dance movements, which were defined with Mika Kiritani's chrysanthemum flower stage design and the Japan Society's stage space in mind.

How much of the “evolved” dance (your words) do you think contains glimpses of the perhaps six-century-old original?

While there is a prescribed set of dance movements, there are times when the dancer weaves his/her own movements on the spot according to the reaction of the audience that day and the breathing of the other performers on stage. This is what is called improvisation in jazz. However, this is a paradoxical idea that exists only because there are prescribed movements to begin with. I personally sometimes end a performance with no improvisation at all, depending on the stage.

How do you prepare for this challenging dance performance?

Some physical warming up and vocalization will be done. More importantly, mental preparation is important in Noh. Before the performance, we calm the mind and improve concentration.

Finally, it would be terrific to hear more of your thoughts in answer to the remarkable question, posed during the q&a, about how to “read” the “codes” of the dance.

This question is similar to the awareness of overcoming language barriers. While watching Noh, there are moments when one gets to learn the meaning of the body movements by noting the dance code and listening to the words of the chants at the same time. That is one of the best parts of Noh. Besides that, the beauty of the actor's physicality and physical expression on stage is the same as the sensitivity that puts us in awe when we see beautiful sculptures and paintings. Even if one does not understand the meaning of the words of the chants, it is possible to grasp an awareness that transcends the language barrier from the perfection of the performer's physicality and the expressiveness of his or her body. However, I believe that this is only possible when the performer's advanced expressive ability collides with the viewer's deep concentration.

Mindy Aloff


Mindy Aloff's writings on the arts, dance a specialty, have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and many other periodicals and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad. Her most recent books are Why Dance Matters (Yale) and Dance in America: A Reader's Anthology (Library of America).

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