Learning to Kneel

Contributed by David Surtasky

We’ve spoken about a number of matters concerning the challenges of performing noh. We’ve spoken in both aesthetic and practical terms. We’ve explained our roles, our aspirations and challenges, our connection to the craft and our thoughts concerning Atsumori. We’ve not touched on the one factor that, perhaps, looms largest in all the challenges: sitting seiza.

There’s no way to gloss this over – sitting seiza hurts. A lot. Perhaps it might be different if you’d practiced it since childhood, or that if your daily life afforded it. Ours doesn’t.

Numbness, cramping, searing pains the likes of which medieaval torturers were well familiar with. There are no words for this. You might read this and think to yourself “I see how this might be so.” Until you’ve done it, or attempted it, you have no truthful point of reference. Not only must you sit in this manner for long durations, you’re also in the midst of performance: it is unnacceptable to be shifting around, wincing and displaying your discomfort.

 People try various tricks. I’ve seen padding taped to legs (dangerous if the tape isn’t applied properly), moleskin applied to the top of feet, perching on tiny stools, perching on less tiny stools coupled with the zen-like attempt to transcend all worldly attachment. The truth: none of it works. There is no free lunch. The physics of the matter work against you. While sitting directly on the floor, eventually your circulation will stop and your legs fall asleep; while trying to sit on a stool you’ve only shifted your center of mass and caused all of your weight to be applied to your knees.

I’ve managed to build up a bit of tolerance over the years. I can make it now longer than I could in the past. I’ve practiced the little tricks like shifting which foot is under which or sneaking an upstage hand back (while hidden by my hakama) to grasp a foot and turn it round. One may only accept it. Once can never actually overcome it.

On the next occasion that you witness a noh play, and observe the waki or jiutai wobbling as they attempt to leave the stage (with calmness and serenity in their eye) think on this. And offer them a prayer. They’re going to need it.

(Author’s note: the title “Learning to Kneel” is borrowed from Dr. Carrie Preston of Boston University with my thanks for her thoughts about it, and my apologies for ruthlessly absconding with it.)



About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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