Kyogen with a twist

by Catherine Pawasarat

KYOTO — What do kyogen, noh, nihon buyo, the works of Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats and Woody Allen have in common?

They are tools of the trade for the Kyoto-based Noho Theatre group, which is tonight marking its 20th anniversary with “Still Moves,” an eclectic program of classic dance, mime and short-play performances at the city’s Oe Noh Theatre.

Noho offers a unique selection of traditional and contemporary stage forms, shaped by a wide range of Western and Eastern disciplines.

“Almost everyone in our group has a background in kyogen, noh or nihon buyo, so we all have the language of traditional Japanese theater,” explains artistic director and kyogen scholar Jonah Salz.

Noho is also regularly joined by guest artists who bring fresh, often non-Japanese elements. This year, the Swedish husband-and-wife team of dancer Ami Dahlstedt and musician Palle Dahlstedt are contributing “Eastern Mirror,” an original improvisational dance to be performed solo by the famed Kita school noh actor Akira Matsui.

Another original piece on the bill is “The Henpecked Husband,” a bilingual kyogen play about an international marriage on the rocks, with Salz in the title role alongside Akira and, on alternate nights, Doji Shigeyama (Akira’s 17-year-old son, who debuted on stage at age 3). Short kyogen dances will be performed with an English chorus, and as special guests the No-East-West Players will present “Silas,” a noh-based dance excerpt derived from a Robert Frost poem.

Also in this month’s program are adaptations of two Beckett plays, “Act Without Words I” and “Rockabye.” The former, a mime for one person, is performed by experimental kyogen actor Akira Shigeyama, who first tackled the piece under Salz’s direction 20 years ago. In an example of the cross-cultural twists Noho brings to its stagings, the nameless character contemplates suicide not by holding scissors to his throat, as in the original directions, but by holding them to his gut, hara-kiri style, as Shigeyama felt this would be more appropriate in Japan.

According to Salz, Noho has the task of presenting works to numerous distinct audience segments. “In Japan, about 80 or 90 percent of the audience is Japanese, and of these, 95 percent will never have heard of Beckett before. So they have no preconceptions,” Salz says.

In other cases, detailed program notes and bilingual dialogue help, too. “We integrate the languages in a way that flows well, so the actors can comfortably understand each other. Kyogen uses a lot of repetitive dialogue, and so we make good use of this,” Salz explains.

As an extension of Noho, 18 years ago, Salz also founded Traditional Theater Training in Kyoto. Under its aegis — and now with sponsorship from Kyoto Arts Center — an international group gathers every summer for two to three weeks to intensively study traditional Japanese theater. Many then participate in Noho performances, and about half of TTT participants are now Japanese.

About a third of Noho’s performances are outside Japan, at venues such as the Edinburgh Fringe, the National Theatre in London, France’s Avignon Festival and New York’s La Mama.

One of Noho’s biggest challenges is for its collaborators to find time in their schedules for rehearsals and tours. The growing popularity of kyogen has kept professional practitioners increasingly busy. Even so, the rewards are plain to see as each performance, by featuring different actors, allows for continuous refinement and exploration.

“My greatest joys are meeting old friends, gaining new methods of improvisation and staging, and together creating a ‘Noho method.’ With Noho, the actors and dancers are unafraid to experiment in ways they wouldn’t dare in traditional or personal performances,” Salz says. “And it’s a joy to see these experiments grow, blossom and spread seeds to other performance artists and groups in Canada, Britain and the United States, who see Noho as a successful model of intercultural theater.”