Contributed by John Oglevee
So I’ve been doing noh for a number of years, somewhere in the vicinity of 15. All this time I’ve always thought that the costumes used by noh performers were beautiful, and appreciated them as finely produced garments, but today was reminded what it means to see things with a beginners eye. Today was the first day of TN’s costume workshop and I’ve been humbled by a) the depth and breadth of specialist Monica Bethe’s knowledge and b) the sheer unadulterated artistry with which these noh costumes are being made.
Following a crash course in weaving by Monica, who not only crafted mini-looms for us to learn basic patterns with, she also fashioned a basic Jacquard loom to show us the punch card system developed by the French and then augmented by the Japanese in the late 1800s. Following this cavalcade of fascinating information, we were escorted to the only remaining specialist shop for noh kimono, Sasaki Noh Ishou (Sasaki Noh Costumes). I’d been there once before a few years ago with Kinue and Teruhisa Oshima for the ordering of the kimono for Pagoda, but had just assumed that they had “bolts” of fabric there which they then put together to fill the order. I now feel like an idiot. The fabric used for every noh costume is not just laying around in a store room fresh off the boat from China, (though many of the techniques certainly emerged from China hundreds of years ago) at the Sasaki facility, in the back they have a number of looms and they weave every piece of cloth that is ordered. Not only are they weaving them, they are spinning and dying the silk. It’s an incredibly elaborate process that is a testament to an analog system of artistry which in fact was the inspiration for the first computer.
Stepping back into the Sasaki workroom was like stepping back in time. Watching these shokunin (craftsman) using a system developed over centuries, I was struck at not simply the immensity of the wooden machines, but at how the shokunin were manipulating them, almost playing them like giant instruments and the music being produced were the exquisite patterns emerging from the furious movements of deft hands and feet. It reminded me of watching a concert organist. I’m a jaded cynical theatre orphan and this place left me speechless. It was inspiring. Looking forward to tomorrow.