New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay shares with us today his review of a series of performances by Bandô Kotoji at Japan Society in New York last week.
I imagine the performances were marketed as “Kabuki Dance” so as to help attract potential audiences, and to help people get a sense of what it was they were going to see. Though this dance form is known in Japan as nihon buyô (lit. “Japan dance”), it seems not uncommon at all in English to refer to it as “kabuki dance.” There is merit in this, as buyô is extremely closely related to kabuki. Many of the dances in buyô come directly from the kabuki theatre – that is to say, many of these dances are taken directly from dance segments in longer plays – and the forms are essentially identical, so far as I know, in the sense that all professional kabuki actors train extensively in nihon buyô and employ buyô movements and style in their movement on stage.
Yet, this application of the term “kabuki dance” can lead to confusion, and in Mr. Macaulay’s review, it seems to have done just that. He writes “Many Westerners assume that Kabuki is an all-male genre, with female roles taken by male players in the onnagata tradition. Mr. Bando’s troupe, however, is not the first I have seen to feature women.” As a specialist (I’m assuming) in Western/modern dance, I cannot blame him for not knowing the intricacies of Japanese art forms, though, then again, as a dance critic with such a prominent paper as the New York Times, and as someone who’s reviewing a “kabuki dance” performance, perhaps we might expect him to do just a little more research. In fact, professional kabuki theatre remains wholly the realm of men, and dance is a separate story. There are all=women kabuki troupes, and regional/local (jishibai) troupes which include women, but the chief professional, official, “core” kabuki, as performed at Kabuki-za and the National Theatre, and as performed on rare occasions on the road (e.g. in New York and Washington DC in 2007), remains an all-male affair, making use of onnagata to play the male roles.
In the remainder of the review, Macaulay offers some fascinating insights into questions behind Westerners’ reception of kabuki. He writes, “So when Westerners find they like some Kabuki, are they admiring something that has been subtly Westernized in unascertainable ways? When a Kabuki performance leaves us cold, is that because we’re seeing something authentic but distanced from our sensibilities, or because we are simply seeing a poor rendition?” Can we ever fully set aside our Western upbringing / identity / cultural background, and appreciate Kabuki as a Japanese would, i.e. as it is meant to be appreciated? Now that I write this out, I realize it sounds like a Nihonjinron argument, albeit phrased by an American. I’d rather not go down that road. Still, I appreciate very much Mr. Macaulay’s investigations, and questioning what it is he enjoys in the kabuki, and how it is that he engages with it, as a Westerner. We must acknowledge our own background, our own biases, and throw objectivity out of the window in order to appreciate how it is that we react to, appreciate, and judge art forms, whether they be “foreign” or from a more familiar source.
I regret that I was not able to be in New York for this performance (or in San Francisco or LA for other performances & workshops which took place recently). You can’t be everywhere at once, of course, but being in a major world city is a start. I hope that those who attended enjoyed it, got a lot out of it, and I hope to be able to see such performances, and take part in nihon buyô / kabuki workshops again myself soon.
For some reason it does not seem to be listed anywhere online, but in fact, our own buyô / kabuki movement teacher, Onoe Kikunobu-sensei, (who I studied under in preparation for the kabuki production last year) will be holding a recital along with her troupe here in Honolulu, on Easter Sunday, at Orvis Auditorium (Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa, Music building).