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13/7/2017 / Issue #013 / Text: Eve Kalyva

Review On stillness and exploration II

Continuing with the theme of Japanese performing arts from last issue, this review discusses noh theatre. The oldest form of Japanese theatre, noh has very strict norms of execution. With a minimalist setting, economy of expression and abundance of allusion, noh leaves much to the imagination. Like in butoh, stillness and precision of movement become fundamental in exploring the essence of things. There is a high degree of abstraction, therefore, of restraint and discipline, in order to allow that which lies behind appearances to come forth and take substance and form. Central to this is the concept of ma, the negative space or the interval between form and non-form. Rather than a reduction, ma is the consciousness of space. It is the gaps between the objects and the pauses between the sounds which enable their manifestation.

Embodiment is a fashionable term in contemporary art talk. It can be understood as capturing something general or abstract into a specific form in the here and now. In more critical terms regarding positive social change, embodiment concerns giving agency and voice to a body (or bodies) to claim an identity. Notwithstanding, this process also risks reducing the complexity of those embodied concepts into something singular – a singularity which will not fit everyone and which, more importantly, can be easily co-opted by the dominant power structures. My interest in noh theatre comes as a possible response to this problematic, involving two opposite forces: making an idea concrete and relevant, on the one hand, and trying to retain open the possibilities of what that idea can mean, on the other. 

Consider a bare setting. An actor enters, sits with his back to the audience and puts on his mask. Under a bright constant light, one sees the wooden floor, the black dress, the white background wall. A melody fills the room, as the masked body moves around with precision. Nothing is made concrete and yet everything is deliberate: how the white socked feet stomp on the wooden floor and how the knees pull away; how the arms swirl around their kimono sleeves and the head turns slowly; how the squared body stands low, firmly pressing the ground, and yet somehow seems suspended from the ceiling. In its restrained mobility, it is full of energy.

The performance, made more active to fit non-Japanese audiences, stirs some narrative in the imagination but one cannot really pinpoint it down. Much aided by the music’s rhythmic intervals, there is a sense of exploring the relation of the body to space and to itself. This wandering makes one wonder about all that lies behind appearances, between the visible and the invisible, this world and its endless possibilities, the limited we can see and the boundless we can imagine. 

The noh stage has no curtains or partitions to conceal any background preparations. A uniquely carved mask is used to externalise internal emotional states and de-personalise the actors in order to evoke the spirit. Nothing remains fixed or static in a careful composition of action and inaction, sounds, chanting and shadows. The play ends and the actor exits the stage passing next to the audience. There, he briefly pauses to mark this moment of transition. Then the room returns back to being a room, the people people, the chairs chairs. But, hopefully, not quite.

The performance was organised by Deshima AIR on 18 April at the recently renovated Dokzaal (part of the legalised squat PlantageDok). Founded in 2013, Deshima AIR aims at maintaining and strengthening the cultural relationship between the Netherlands and Japan. The performance  comprised a solo (Toshikazu Marumachi, Deshima AIR artist in residence), a duet (Marumachi and Miyuki Inoue) and a choral improvisation (Marumachi and Generic Choir). Playful and energetic, the duet used improvised instruments such as a gramophone horn (later made into a hat), plastic tubes and sea shells. Words were turned into sounds turned into dialogue turned into images. In the myriad of sounds that they produced, those full of life bodies took on any form. 

This interplay between communicating and standing apart, the body and embodiment, the materiality of the sound and the transcendence of presence was further explored through improvisation in the third part. A masked body gave cues for other bodies to articulate their voices but also realise how they interconnect in place and time. Responding to and resonating with one another, they created a self-organising assembly which navigated itself through a beautiful symphony of sounds, rhythms, pauses and exclamations. 

If there is a long list with what is wrong with art today, high on that list is the lack of discipline. Discipline to execution and form. This type of artistic discipline is not about restriction, but about precision. It is about doing away with the frivolous, the unnecessary, the adornment, the easily consumed and the equally easily discarded. It is about getting to the heart of the matter. 

Noh practitioners argue that tradition is not a limitation but a foundation. Discipline enables one to work through restriction in order to articulate something new. As our lives are being commodified and sold back to us as lifestyles, it is difficult to find adequate registers of communication and collaboration. In creative as much as in socio-political terms, we need to resist the senseless consumption of things and ideas, recover a common ground and move from the individual to the collective.  

Photo credit:
Duet performance by Toshikazu Marumachi and Miyuki Inoue. Photo by Deshima AIR