(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
More than 400 years ago, a group of Japanese women on the dried banks of a river near Kyoto began a tradition that would continue and evolve for centuries. These women, dressed in elaborate costumes, acted out comedic scenes that reflected daily life through dance and song. An immediate hit, this new form of dance drama was quickly incorporated into Japanese culture, becoming the seeds for what is now know as kabuki theater.
Only a few years after the first official kabuki performance, where women played the roles of both genders, the art form was transferred to male actors and dancers, leaving those pioneer women locked in history. Today, kabuki performances feature men in both male and female roles.
Kabuki, which means “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary” has always been an avant-garde form in Japanese culture. Its beautiful sets, costumes and scores have brought kabuki into the international spotlight as one of the most compelling performance genres on the planet.
This month, as part of the celebrations of 60 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel, an evening entitled Kabuki Dance will be presented at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv.
The evening will consist of two pieces choreographed by famed kabuki artist Fujima Kanjuro – Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden) and Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge). Both works feature celebrated actor and dancer Nakamura Kyozo, with Onoe Matsugoro as supporting actor. As is tradition in kabuki, an ensemble of musicians and singers will accompany the pieces. Both these plays are considered to be at the heart of the kabuki tradition and are presented by theaters around Japan.Sagi Musume
was first performed in 1762 as part of a group of dances. Thought to be based on an old play by Chikamatsu, the dance tells the story of a woman who returns from the grave in the form of a crane to seek revenge on her unfaithful husband. At the beginning of the piece, the maiden is seen dressed in white against a backdrop of snow. As the scene progresses, the maiden in the white cloak is replaced by a woman in a deep red dress. She goes on to dance a happy gig, filled with love and passion. Moments later, the ghost-like creature returns to remind the audience of the unhappy future that awaits her redcloaked counterpart.Shakkyo
is considered to be one of the most technically demanding dances in the kabuki repertoire. The piece tells the story of a monk’s pilgrimage to Mount Zeiryo in China that is interrupted by the appearance of lions. These creatures, whose movements account for the difficulty in this dance, stop the main character as he crosses a narrow stone bridge.
The dance of the shishi, or lions, is a happy one that expresses deep devotion.
Since his childhood, choreographer Fujima Kanjuro has been exposed to the white face paint and sweeping robes of kabuki. The descendant of a long line of kabuki artists, Kanjuro’s path to the stage began at a young age, watching his mother direct actors and dancers. At 22, Kanjuro struck out on his own, becoming a recognized choreographer. In the 10 years since, he has presented his interpretation of kabuki around the world. In 2003, he was awarded the prestigious New Artist Award/ Minister of Education and Science’s Award for the Arts.
Kanjuro is the director of the Fujima School of Nihon Buyo (traditional Japanese dance) and is an active composer of classical music. And though Kanjuro is known to take the stage, he has commented many times that in kabuki, he is happy to remain a furitsuki-shi, or behind-the-scenes artist.Kabuki Dance will run at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on September 6 and 7. For more information, visit www.suzannedellal.org.il.