Getting up to date with an ancient art
Nihon Buyo ****
STARTLING in its simplicity and revealing in its elegance, the centuries-old art of Nihon Buyo stunned a packed Festival Theatre last night.
Meaning quite simply, "Japanese Dance", Nihon Buyo is the oldest of Japan’s four ancient forms of the performing arts. First mentioned in 712 AD, it progressed into what might be called its modern form in the mid-17th century.
Not that last night’s performance was a museum piece of dull proportions. Far from it. The form might be ancient, but the dances staged by the Nihon Buyo Foundation are right up to date. Indeed the final piece, which was the closest in form to classical ballet, received its world premier only on Saturday.
Yet it was the opening piece which had the most modern feel to it. Senkei, or The Depiction of the Fans, could easily have been a piece of contemporary dance.
It was both minimal and fascinating stuff, danced by six male dancers in matching fawn kimonos and giant blue trousers, to the oriental rhythms of drums and flute.
The dancers performed with great deliberation in their grace and poise underneath a single suspended fan. But when they each withdrew their own glittering fan from within the folds of their kimonos, you understood why the fans are described as the "tools" of the dancers.
No Las Vegas-style girlie fan dance, even with metre-wide ostrich feather fans, could ever hope to be as expressive as this. It was all about precision and grace, as the dance built from a very grounded expression of the awe and worship of nature, to a leaping and foot-stamping declaration of festivity.
The second pair of dances took the Western audience into quite uncharted choreographic territory. In the first of these, Nishikawa Yuko depicted the story of Shiokumi, the Tide Gatherer. In a sumptuous red kimono, decorated with rainbow hills, she told the sad story of a salt gatherer abandoned by a prince.
Here, you realised, there was greater meaning within each movement than ever the untutored observer could hope to comprehend. Yet the result, danced to a live orchestra of single-stringed instruments, strangely stringed-drums and nasally intoning singers, drew you into a place of great melancholy and loss.
If, on another tour, a surtitled translation of the words would be appropriate, less interpretation was needed for the second of this pair of traditional works. Once you knew that Nishikawa Minosuke, dressed like an oriental Tweedledum, was a servant of a Samurai warrior, boasting about his master while looking for him in a red-light district, comprehension came more easily.
While both these pieces used solo dancers in highly formalised, even ritual, movements, the final piece allowed the dancer Nishikawa Senzo much greater freedom to express himself.
Kumagai Rensho - Samurai Naozane or Warrior Naozane - tells the story of a Samurai warrior who, after he is forced to kill his own son and save that of his master’s enemy, leaves to become a monk.
Nishikawa Senzo is one of three people designated as "National Treasures" of Nihon Buyo in Japan.
And if he no longer possesses the athletic precision of youth, his ability to use the briefest of movements to describe an emotion or an idea, is obvious to even the untutored eye.
This was dancing which takes the moves of Nihon Buyo, moves which would be familiar to anyone who has seen martial arts, but without the violence, and uses them to tell a story.
Yet it was in the faces of the principal characters that the real depth of the story became apparent.
This was a fascinating glimpse of a whole new world of dance, ripe for exploration by Western audiences. It is not without its difficulties - particularly in terms of pace - but a real treat, none the less.
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