Monday, September 5, 2011

English Noh

"When we carefully see and examine things surrounding us in nature, be they large or small, have lives or no lives, there are certain order and principle of cycles of ‘jo-ha-kyu’, jo meaning launch or intro, ha break or change, and kyu speeding or accelerating such as in birds trilling, insects chirping, …"
- Zeami (1363-1443)

"And, in the midst of a performance, I have closed my eyes a number of times, and listened intensely to the sound, the rhythm and the pauses in between. From somewhere within those depths come, clearly and quickly, “images”. This is what I feel Noh is truly all about, not the images of what one actually sees before oneself, but the images that arise from within."
- Toshiki Komazawa (Writer)

Have you seen any Noh play or heard about it before? Can you name some titles, one or two, such as Hagoromo (celestial robe of an Angel) or Tsurukame (Crane and Turtle)?

Noh is a symbolic play and an intangible cultural heritage designated by UNESCO. It is one of the major Japanese traditional art forms, older than Shakespearian plays and attempts to express human feelings in detail through extremely simplified actions or forms. The audience uses their imagination to understand it as a whole and interpret dramas in their own individual ways. That much said, will you be encouraged to get in a mood to see one when it comes near you? Some of us might, but very unlikely to see those from abroad raising their hands.

I saw great news recently that may change that response. An English Noh play troupe “English Nohgaku Theater” was born and they toured Dublin, London and Paris last year and China this past July. They performed a new Noh play titled “Pagoda”, all in English. Jeannette Cheong is a playwright and Pagoda is based on her own story.

A young English woman of Chinese descent travels to the humble village of her dead father in southeast China. There, at a Buddhist pagoda, she encounters a mother, named Meiling with her daughter, who long ago had sent off a young son to work on a ship to protect him from famine. After climbing the pagoda and looking out to the sea waiting for their son and brother to return, the women disappear. The traveler then meets a fisherman who tells her the legend of the pagoda built by the village mothers who parted with their children and prayed for their safety and welfare. The fisherman asks the name of the traveler’s father and stands aghast. The English woman realizes that the two women she had encountered earlier were, in fact, the spirits of her grandmother and aunt and her father was the son they were waiting for. Later, the spirits reappear and tell of their past hardship, before dancing a dance of reunion. The traveler realizes that her family is now reunited in the spirit world as she contemplates the fates of those separated from their homeland.

Enthralled Cheong wrote the story in the 1970’s with the intention of creating a “musical”. While Cheong visited the Far East often for her academic career, she apparently had a chance to witness and experience a Noh play. She became aware that the living and the dead coexist in Noh.

Cheong contacted Kinue Oshima, the Kita-school Noh actor and manager of Oshima Noh Theater in Fukuyama, Hiroshima who accomplished the collaboration work with Richard Emmert, writer/translator and Noh actor of the same Kita-school of the University of Musashino. Emmert had been involved in the famous play “Hawk’s Well” written by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and “Drift Fires”, first performed in 1985 at the Tsukuba Expo.

The China project of the English Noh "Pagoda" was reportedly completed with the ardent wish and coordination of Jeanette Cheong at the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts and at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Probably it was the first time the Japanese Noh was ever performed in China in English. Kinue Oshima, who played a major role herself, reported that the play was a huge success with the storm of applause from the Chinese audience. She felt the warmth of parental love and affection which has no national boundaries.

For Further Information:

Kita-School Oshima Noh-gaku Do
Noh Theaters to Present English Performance

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