Two centuries before Shakespeare picked up his quill, the stones for Noh were laid down. The stately, highly codified dance-theater form has stood at the root of Japanese classical performance for 700 years, and astoundingly little about it has changed; continuity and stylization have been its watchwords. This July, Lincoln Center Festival presents Kanze Noh Theatre, the company by which “modern” Noh was consolidated in the 14th century, for six performances. It’s a rare chance to see Kanze Noh’s Grand Master Kiyokazu Kanze, an actual descendent of the form’s founding father. But while Noh (or “skill”) is the oldest extant major art form, few Americans have ever seen it. So what should Noh newbies expect?
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Noh’s aesthetic has been rigid for four centuries. The square, roofed platform recalls a Shinto shrine; the back wall is painted with a single pine tree, and a bridge (the hashigakari) leads offstage. The playing area must be made of unpainted Japanese cypress. Hidden beneath the floorboards are huge empty earthenware pots, which amplify the sound of an actor’s voice or stamping foot.
Several plays being presented are by Kanze Za’s most famous master, Zeami, the 14th-century Noh titan. Following his father, Kan’ami, Zeami elaborated Zen-influenced principles of hana (the flower) and yûgen (the grace of transcendence and suffering), sophisticated concepts that demand intertwining growth among character, player and the audience’s own spirit. In many Noh plays, supernatural beings (demons, angels or ghosts) transform themselves into human form to dance a while in our world—so even if understanding eludes you, keep your mind on the sublime.
The term for performing Noh is “dancing Noh.” Although there is story, all language is subsumed into chant, which subtle movements then illuminate. The lead character wears a mask, carved so that tilting it can bring out different expressions; some of Kanze Noh’s masks have been passed down from Zeami himself. Also, though Edo-era performances could stretch for eight hours, each New York program will be quite brief: either two Noh plays and a comic kyogen interlude or, on three occasions, a Noh play preceded by the Okina, a ritual dance of gratitude with a history that stretches back
before even Noh’s long memory.