In the Noh

Sixteen Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue

In the Noh
Performance studies junior learns a new language of the body while studying the ancient traditions of Japanese Noh theater. By Brian Deneen

Humility is a virtue in the 600-year-old Noh stage tradition as well as in Japanese culture itself. As a performer about to go onstage in this sacred dance, I felt my stomach humbly tense with apprehension. Sweat had soaked through many of my heavy garments — the white yukata robe and samurai-like hakama pants that tied tightly around my waist.

I bowed to my three instructors, who would soon disappear onto the dimly lit, dark-wood-paneled stage, and took some deep breaths. I quickly opened and closed my fan to make sure it would behave properly for me onstage.

I crawled through the tiny stage door, careful not to bump my head on its frame as I had in dress rehearsal. Finding the finish worn in certain key places, I carefully felt my way across the creaky old floorboards of the stage, eventually finding my place.

My three instructors knelt in a row behind me, bellowing their vocal accompaniment to my dance. Without skipping a beat, one of them leaned forward to tug out a wrinkle in my pants. (Noh costumes can be stubborn and are constantly in need of adjustment, even in plain view of the audience.) I was still a bundle of nerves but realized at that moment that I was in good hands.

My performance was the culmination of three weeks I had spent studying Noh theater in Kyoto, Japan, last summer. I had developed an intense curiosity about and respect for traditional Japanese theater while directing plays in high school. It continued to intrigue me in my performance studies courses. I was fortunate to be admitted into a training seminar led by professional actors from the Kanze School in Kyoto. The play I performed was called Kiyotsune, the story of a warrior who takes his own life on the eve of a great battle. From the vantage point of purgatory, he notices his grieving wife and his soldiers, who desperately need him.

Shingo Katayama, one of my instructors, or sensei, always thought it a bit strange that foreigners like myself had enough curiosity about traditional Japanese theater to come across the ocean to study such an esoteric art. Noh originated about 600 years ago as court dramas performed for emperors and nobles. The text of the plays is minimal, and the drama does not rely as much on plot and development of character as does Western theater. The stories are simple, usually delivered in parable form. They tell the stories of warriors, ghosts and demons, developing thematically around the act of transformation. Seemingly harmless old beggars reveal themselves to be ferocious spirits and give the haughty nobles their just desserts.

Before the play Katayama, a master performer at the Kanze Kaikan School of Noh and one of three instructors with whom I had taken daily lessons, shot me a sly smile and told me yet again how I looked like Harry Potter decked out in Japanese dress. The instructors spoke little English. I spoke even less Japanese. But during lessons with my sensei, exchanging information without spoken words never seemed to be an obstacle.

Having been a student most of my life, I had considered verbal language to be the most effective medium. Approaching Noh theater as a performer made me reconsider my preference. Studying in Japan taught me that gesture should always be paid attention to, for it is suffused with meaning. Much can be learned, and much can be respected, with a mutual awareness of the language of bodies interacting in the space they both inhabit. The bowing between sensei and student, in which the student bows lower than the teacher to show respect, helped reinforce the sense of humility I felt in studying the ancient art of Noh theater.

Americans may not customarily bow. But the next time you observe the quality of a handshake or the detail of a wave goodbye, pay attention, for the body reveals things far more vividly than we are aware.

Brian Deneen (C05) of Winnetka, Ill., plans a career in theatrical direction and adaptation of literature.

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