Noh Pressure! Noh Workshop in Vancouver
by Jacob Derksen
Noh Theatre traces its roots back over 1400 hundred years. It was in the middle of the sixth century that gagaku, literally “elegant music,” was brought to Japan from China. At the same time, folk arts known as sangaku – acrobatics, juggling, pantomime and drum dancing – also entered Japan from China. Sangaku spread among the common people of Japan and naturally incorporated Japanese folk arts as well; it became more popularly known as sarugaku, “monkey music.”
As the art form matured, it began to favour comedic elements, including short sketches, comic dialogues based on word play, improvised dance and musical arrangements based on courtesan traditions. By the early part of the fourteenth century – during the Kamakura period – these elements had become increasingly standardized. Along with other popular Japanese performing arts – specifically dengaku, which included musical accompaniment for rice planting and other harvest-related celebrations, and en’nen, a temple banquet performance by monks after a Buddhist ceremonial meeting – they fused into what would become Noh.
Two primary figures in Noh history are Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (1333 to 1384) and his son, Zeami Motokiyu (1363 – 1443). Kan’ami was the founder of a sarugaku troupe which became known as the Yuzaki theatre company and, in turn, became the school of Noh theatre. Zeami was taught Noh by his father and early on showed promise as an actor. While still very young, he received patronage from the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, which afforded him both the opportunity to further his education and to devote himself to acting as a career. As an adult, Zeami would prove not only a popular actor but also a noteworthy playwright and erudite scholar. At the age of 72, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, Zeami was exiled to Sado Island which is located in the Japan Sea off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. Undoubtedly as a direct effect of Zeami’s exile approximately one third of the Noh theatre stages in Japan are on Sado Island. It is not known for sure where he passed away but it is generally believed to be Sado Island.
Fast-forward to the present: Vancouver, BC, is fortunate enough to be on Noh master Tsunao Yamai’s itinerary, which included stops in Paris, New York City, Burlington (Vermont), Los Angeles, Portland and Victoria. Yamai-san is member of one of the oldest schools of Noh, Komparu-ryu. He has studied extensively under the present and former heads of this school and has been performing since he was five years old. He is committed to spreading the popularity of Japanese Noh theatre around the world, and in his mission as a cultural envoy he has been able to do just that. It should be noted that Yamai-san is no stranger to this part of the world, having performed a lecture/demo both here and in Vancouver in May 2013 and a full performance of the play Hagoromo in Vancouver in April 2014.
While rooted in a tradition that dates back centuries, Yamai-san is not afraid to take his art in new directions. This was in evidence at his recent Victoria and Vancouver performances (Feb. 27 and 28) which included not just a full complement of musicians – Shuntaro Kumamoto, nohkan (flute); Toru Tanaka, shimedaiko (stick drum); Naoya Toriyama, kotsuzumi (shoulder drum); and Important Intangible Cultural Property Mitsuo Yasufuku, otsuzumi (hip drum) – but also the highly accomplished jazz pianist Kentaro Kihara. Sharing the stage with Yamai-san were actors Tsujii Hachiro and Important Intangible Cultural Property Shinobu Takahashi.
This performance was only the tip of the iceberg this year, as Yamai-san’s cultural exchange also included a week-long Noh workshop in Vancouver. In private conversation after last year’s performance in Vancouver, Yamai-san intimated that a Vancouver-based workshop series was in the works. As I had been waiting since April of last year to take this workshop, when it was finally announced I jumped at the chance! Organized through TomoeArts with the hard work of Colleen Lanki, the series of evening classes took place at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts and ran from March 8 through Mar 12. In my race to register I may have missed the fine print that said that on March 12 there was to be a happyokai, roughly translated as demonstration or performance; it may have been that there was no fine print at all.
I was one of approximately 20 participants. Most were Japanese or Japanese Canadian, but there were students from a wide range of ethnic and artistic backgrounds, with slightly more women than men. Each night’s class consisted of Yamai-san leading us in utai, chanting, for an hour or so, followed by a short break; the rest of the evening was spent on shimai, dancing. Yamai-san was ably assisted by his students Hidekazu Matsunaga and Kiyomi Muraoka, while Maiko Behr was our very capable translator. I must admit that in the first few minutes of the first class I was wondering what I’d signed up for, but once I gave myself to the experience the time flew by as it is wont to do when you’re having fun. Practicing kamae, the basic standing position and suri-ashi, “sliding feet” may have been the least difficult of the exercises but I couldn’t help but notice my suri-ashi movements were more reminiscent of a zombie walk than of the masterful movements demonstrated by the instructors.
Describing her participation in the workshops, University of British Columbia professor Millie Creighton, who teaches courses in Japanese culture and society and has initiated a credit course in tea ceremony, said: “I think the workshop was an excellent way to learn about a Japanese cultural performance art and an embedded participatory way to learn about Japanese culture–all while actually learning to perform some Noh songs and dances as well.” Hiroko Kitayama, a programs assistant at Vancouver Community College, seconded that feeling and commented on another aspect: “I very much enjoyed practising new skills, working hard and improving our performance as a team, and learning some spiritual aspects of performing Noh, which I believe could be applied to various practices in our everyday life.” Consul General of Japan in Vancouver, Seiji Okada, and his wife, Yasuko, were also participants. I believe Consul General Okada-san best sums up the collective experience in his comment that, “Seeing Noh is special but dancing to Noh is a truly rewarding experience that helps one to understand the real spirit of this sophisticated traditional Japanese performing art. The attempts to learn and perform some basic Noh movements were very enlightening; it required 100% concentration. The dynamism of a Noh performance can only be learned by doing. The workshop created a deeper sense and appreciation for the richness and complexity of Noh.”
After four days of three-hour-long practices, not one of us was truly ready to debut our new skills as Noh performers, but the show must go on as they say. In introducing us, Yamai-san mentioned how this cultural exchange and performance was a historic moment in the history of the Komparu school. I don’t believe I was the only participant who felt his stomach drop at that!
For the chant portion of the happyokai we were split into men’s and women’s teams, and both teams performed a short piece from Takasago, one of Zeami Motokiyu’s plays. For the shimai portion of the performance, we had split into two groups, one performing a short piece from the aforementioned Takasago and the other performing a slightly longer piece from Hagoromo, “The Feathered Robe,” which Yamai-san’s troupe had performed in Vancouver last year (its author is unknown). It’s safe to say that those us of who do not have dance backgrounds were generally less performance-ready than those who did. An added bonus for the night’s events, though, included performances by 13 of Yamai-san’s students who, along with 17 other of Yamai-san’s students and supporters, had arrived from Japan the night before. It was such a privilege to see his students – most of whom were women and many of whom, by all appearances, were retirees – performing dance pieces of favourite plays. Seeing that it is possible to begin studying such a refined art even later in one’s life was very encouraging.
The night’s events, which also included a biwa player, were capped by performances by assistant instructors Matsunaga-san and Muraoka-san and, of course, by Yamai-san. No less moving than his masterful utai and shimai was Yamai-san’s closing statements, including a very moving tribute to his wife, Tae, who played an integral role in the smooth facilitation of the workshop and of his mission as cultural envoy – which, I should note, ended at the conclusion of the performance. I believe Yamai-san’s mission was a tremendous success, and I consider it a true privilege to have had the opportunity to participate in this workshop and to study an ancient art from one of today’s best.
Jacob Derksen saw his first Noh performance in Japan while studying wadaiko there in 2005. He has been fascinated by Noh ever since.