Noh News Is Good News


This page contains articles written by Greg about Noh, related performances, events, workshops and anything else he wants to share. Please enjoy.

late posting (summer ’13)

Dance the Hag

            This year, I am dancing Yamanba:the “crone,” the crazy old hag (or demoness) of the mountains.  She can change shape at will.  She helps the wood cutters find their way home.  As a wood sparrow, she sings to the over-worked weaver-woman.  An empty cicada shell is her robe.  She wonders around the mountains thinking about ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ until it becomes clear (again and again) that there is no difference.  “The willows are green the flowers are red, things are what they are.”   It is a difficult dance—long and full of abstract movements.

            When learning new dances—depending on the play—there are a few actions that are mimetic (therefore easy to remember—if not perform.)  However, most of the movements (kata) are abstract actions—and that is what kills you.  In my first year of study, Rick-sensei often said, “Don’t worry about the play, just learn the kata.”   But it does helps knowing that you are pointing at the moon or a stream or a shrine—it is something to hold onto while you are desperately trying to remember the next nonsensical dance step.  
            There are the ten or eleven basic kata that are repeated in every dance I have learned.  They are the steps you learn in your first year and train to perform the rest of your life:  Shikake, hirake, stitome, miro ire, sayu… and another five, or seven…   They translate to things like ‘point, open, scoop,’ etc… and carry any meaning the dancer wishes to give them.  Sometimes in, say, a shikake (pointing) step you are pointing at an actually thing, in many cases you are just pointing. 
            In noh we say, “Feel 100 per cent and show 30.”  So a neophyte viewer, watching an early training recital, my well think,  “If you’ve seen one uchi komi, you’re seen them all,” but, certainly, complexity is informed by emotion.  A student is first trained in women and young man roles where the kata is basic but its complexity is so subtle, only great actors can demonstrate real intent.   So a beginner must memorize a series of movements that seem meaningless.  The frustration for western—meaning obsessed—actors is short lived; there is so much to ‘get used to’ in the study of Noh, one is happy to let meaning come when it will.

            At this juncture in my training, I am expected to understand what I am performing.  As far as Yamamba-kuse is concerned, I understand it is a difficult dance and a hugely difficult song for the chorus: eight minutes of protracted, severe (go-gin) singing.  The combination of old woman and demon had me flummoxed.  Every movement must be filled with immense power:  First measured and intense then large and lighting fast.   I’ve danced women roles (measured and intense,) a few worriers, and some demons.  Yamambais all those things in separate measure—a particular relationship between aged elegance and muscle.  She is so ancient she has become powerful deity.   Unnoticed and bent with age she will help lumberjacks lift their load.  She is kind but uncaring (and has a pension for cannibalism!)  Invisible, she is the mountain itself.
            In training, there is always correction and rarely compliments.  When you first learn the kata you are corrected at every step.  Beginners often are frustrated by this method, but one grows accustomed to never being right:  In rehearsal a few days back, (after memorizing the kata, landing the actions, such as they are, onto the right medieval words) I heard the refrain of “Slower!  SLOWER!”  It seem that my crosses where too efficient.  All noh dance requires first holding back, then developing, then completion (SEE: Jo Ha Kyu.)  Yamumba-kuse, in particular, is performed with extensive restrain that develops imperceptibly, and then erupts into a series of explosive kata.  I push my energy forward, barely moving, and try to arrive just in time to perform the abstracted narrative action.  There is hardly a syllable to give one-way or the other.  So much practice!
            During a lesson, a first-year student who is studying flute, in a pique of frustration, thrust his noh-kan to our ever-patient teacher, and said, “Can you play that note on this?  I just want to know you can get that sound on this flute.”—I feel the same way about my dance.  I need to know that the master’s dance can be played on my instrument:  Yesterday, my body seized up—it would not perform the action that followed a burst of activity.  I hung there helpless willing my muscles to move as the chant continued unabated.  My mind understood the next moment but my body, frozen, refused to perform—a painful moment and one that I have experienced before.  It took tremendous will to complete the simple action.

            Here in Bloomsburg, PA I gaze at the Appalachian foothills and think of my older lady-friends back at home—the Philly Crones.  They do not care for your religion; they care for your soul.  They know life is pain and hardship but, without passing judgment, they help ease your load.  Yamanba:  She is the monster-mother beyond all mothers, a helper who never guides, and the demon/angel who is as close as the furthest mountain.  She is the hag, the crone.

The LAST of the five plays is written!

Yup,  “A Minor Cycle; Five Little Plays On A Starry Night” is finished! 
(Well except of one line and one verse.) 

I am proud of it all.  Especially the “Pan Song Cycle” 
I always wanted to write a song cycle and this was the perfect opportunity!  (heh, heh)
The verse still needed is a conjunction of the Male and Female aspects of the cycle.  Personally, I would rather them end apart. 
But (thank you Jubilith Moore) it is better for the entire evening (songs and plays) that they join together for the final FINAL lyric.

I MAY post the cycle in it’s entirety and who ever reads is (It it’s entirety) should comment.

Now here is a bit of the e-mail I send Jubilith at Theatre of Yugen.

            <<I hope you are home safe and sound.

            Well here is the very most of it.   The end isn’t as strong as it could be, maybe.
there is a short speech I have yet to write (It is in RED)
The Kyogen “’I will go,’ ‘I have arrived’” bit is in green as I never quite know how to place them.
I was really tempted to go with the “It was all a dream” ending…

I think we can fix it up pretty well if you have time for a phone meeting later this week.

I do fear that ALL the Kyogen exposition (the ‘jo’) needs to be …er… ‘versified.’  (I.E.: 7 and 5)

We will have to be rather adroit as it jumps from style to style, esp. at the end.  Purposefully I hope.  On purpose, anyway.

It is more abstract then I intended, but I think that’s kinda cool.  (Edith will like it)
For your Victorian flavor, there are THREE Tennyson poems quoted (Changing them slightly to suit the need, of course) and an easy reference to Keats.

I could have gone really nuts with this maybe, but I wanted to keep the timbre of the evening.
It still may need some erotic strokes.  (You will see; I used “maidens” instead of the V-word.)

I think it would also benefit from showy lighting queues for entrances and stuff ---
I am imagining everything very exposed, but, like, the entrance of St G. should be both exposed and surprising.   (‘but, like’ – heh)

Whet yer whistle?   We will be the Yugen’s Holliday show  (!)  and at the Painted Bride Arts Center  in February!!

Kabuki Workshop DAY TWO (2/11/12)

A shorter day (only five hours) and, thank goodness, really.  It is difficult to absorb so much information and for the body to take on so many new techniques.

It’s my “ballet muscles” that hurt the most:  My hips, knees and that joint between your thigh and pelvis. –All that turning out to play heroes and turning in to be the ladies.

I got to try on a courtesan outfit!  (not a real one, of course, but a fair facsimile that Larry invented.) 
Larry was full of helpful hints and effective “Do-fors” so one can construct a million-dollar Kabuki look at a fraction of the cost. 

Sadly, because of my brand new (and rather masculine) belly, I fear my courtesan days are over, but it was fun trying to do buyo (see earlier post) in a kimono with a giant train. 
I thought that the manipulation of the dress would be part of the choreography but—oh ho!—it is completely left up to the dancer.  So there you are, trying to dance with your knees tight together, remembering to look cute, turning around into the corkscrew S-twist, and elegantly kicking your silk train out of the way. 
It’s amazing I stayed vertical.

Then we did a little bit of a ‘samurai’ buyo.  There are so many moves in a buyo it is overwhelming written out, it would be seven or eight pages for a three-minute dance. We all wished we had a week to learn and practice these dances. 
It is always fun whipping a sword around, but a little nerve-wracking with eight of us is a small room.

The second part of the day was devoted to Kabuki fighting or te (literally, ‘hand.’)  (There are lots of these as more than half the plays deal with an historical battle, or revenge killing.)

Of course, kabuki fighting differs from western-style sword combat in strange ways. 
The swords never touch.  The theatrics is the exciting thing.
Everything is accompanied by the Hoshigi (wooden sticks that beat against each other or on the floor—real loud) and
Looking cool is the main point.
What fun! 
First we did some one-on-one
Since we where learning very basic moves, each combatant performed the same choreography while facing each other.  In this way a parry is also a strike and the whole thing seemed more like a dance.

Next, we worked on a ‘one against many’ kind of battle.  I got to be the superhero--which is a lot like “star dancing.”   I stood in the middle of stage and waved my arm a little bit while everyone else charged at me in pairs.  They were defeated with a flick on my hand or I magically grab their spear and they succumb to my awesomeness.  Then more chest beating and posing.

It was an entertain afternoon despite having to wrap and re-wrap my 50-year-old knee.  By that evening the magic of learning a new art form had worn down a little.  Now the limiting palate of the form and the large holes in our (well, my) ability seemed far more apparent and frustrating.  When we read and discuss my 4th cycle piece (“Lady Jingly”) it’ll be … interesting.

Tomorrow is review, kabuki make up, and reading.  Woo-hoo!

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