Stage

Hikaru Uzawa blends old and new to add vitality to the world of noh

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Hikaru Uzawa is a noh performer who marries her work within the traditional confines of the art form with performing in contemporary pieces internationally, bringing freshness to the traditional world of noh.

Uzawa, 39, comes from a long line of noh performers. Her mother, Hisa Uzawa, is, along with Hikaru, one of the few professional female noh actors active today. Her grandfather was also an established performer. She tells The Japan Times: “As a child I used to play in the corner of the room when my mother and grandfather were teaching. There was never a time I don’t remember noh in my life.” Thus, for Uzawa, following in her family’s footsteps was always a natural choice.

“In preschool we had to write about what we wanted to be as adults. I wrote ‘noh performer,'” she says. However, because she was a woman, she wasn’t encouraged to perform by those in the broader noh community, and for a time she contemplated doing something entirely different. “I’ve always been interested in genealogy and the history of names, so I thought maybe something like anthropology would suit me.”

Regardless, she decided to buck convention. After graduating from the Tokyo University of the Arts with a focus on noh, she entered the Tessenkai subgroup of the Kanze school as a live-in apprentice, or uchi-deshi. Though this is the typical, almost mandatory training for a young actor, as a woman it was not expected that Uzawa would take part.

Once she started her apprenticeship, she had to live at home and commute every day, as she was not allowed to live in the same home as young male apprentices. The long days didn’t deter her, though. Her mother, Hisa, says that, “Sometimes, Hikaru would come home on the last train then leave on the first.”

Hikaru herself assumes that: “They expected me to stay for a bit then leave. They didn’t expect that I would become someone who was always by their side for six years.”

As a performer, Uzawa brings a sense of vitality to the sometimes staid noh world. Noh is distinguished by its use of kata (forms), which have allowed the performance tradition to be passed down through the generations, mostly unchanged since the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). However, like many Japanese performance traditions, the focus on kata can lead to an overemphasis on perfecting technique instead of the content of the performance and the personal expression or style of the performer.

Uzawa, however, considers mastering the kata only the bare minimum. “What’s interesting is what happens after the kata. That’s the foundation. What is beyond that is me as a performer. I will spend my whole life on the kata, but I also need to push myself further at the same time,” she says.

As a young performer, and a woman in a field dominated by older men, the stakes are high for Uzawa. In a tongue-in-cheek manner, she acknowledges her relative youthfulness in the field: “I will begin to be established in the noh world when I am 70. So until then I just have to keep working and pushing myself.”

Uzawa has never considered noh to be isolated from other types of performance. “I grew up going to see a lot of avant-garde performances and other theater with my mother, who was always interested in different types of theater. Therefore, I always felt affinity to performance of all kinds,” she says.

Uzawa was first given the opportunity to perform in a non-noh context in 2015. She performed with a traditional Chinese kunqu opera dancer in Nanjing as part of an international contemporary dance series called “One Table Two Chairs,” directed by Danny Yung. This series, as the title suggests, uses one table and two chairs as a minimalist set for contemporary pieces. This is the basic set-up for Chinese opera, which has deep historical roots, just like noh.

“Because both of us had traditional training, it was possible for us to work together to create something interesting and meaningful,” Uzawa says.

Since then, Uzawa has performed in Hong Kong, Poland and the United States, among other places, both as a traditional and contemporary performer.

In 2017, she was part of a project at Tokas, formerly Tokyo Wonder Site, titled “Kare to Watashi” (“Him and I”), with a butoh performer and contemporary actor from Hong Kong. Similar to the “One Table Two Chairs” project, the performance took place on a sparse set, and allowed the performers from a variety of backgrounds to collaborate. For Uzawa, the project was an opportunity to utilize the entire physical lexicon she received from her traditional training in an entirely new way.

Most recently, in November 2018, she was part of a project in Hong Kong where she worked with Olivia Salvadori, a contemporary vocalist with a background in opera. The project focused on what it is like for traditionally trained performers to work within the context of contemporary performance.

Uzawa says she is always cautious about how she chooses her projects. “For me, noh is my main focus. All my contemporary performance efforts have to feed back into my noh performances,” she says. “I don’t just want to be the token noh performer. I want people to want to work with me specifically.”

Uzawa says she wants to show more people how interesting and accessibly noh can be: “When I meet someone who has never seen noh, I want to show them the beauty of it. Even though it’s a very old performance tradition, the stories are basic. Everyone can relate to them.”

Regardless of the medium of performance, for Uzawa her ultimate goal is always the same: to stay true to her roots while speaking to the world.

“I want to communicate with people through unspoken means,” she says. “Using my body, my performances, I want to tell stories.”