Contributed by Megan Nicely, Assistant Professor, University of San Francisco
I have been a dancer for nearly 25 years, but as a first-year student at the Noh Training Project (NTP) this summer, I was repeatedly returned to beginnings—returned because without years of training I would not have noticed certain nuances—and beginnings because while recognizable, they were also unfamiliar. On the last day of class with our master teacher Kinue Oshima, we attempted to move through our newly learned dances wearing a mask. This experience gave me some insight on both Noh and the dance pursuits that have led me to this point.
Dance practices stemming from the 1960s such as postmodern dance and butoh, which have been my primary interest, train the performer’s eyes in particular ways. In butoh, many teachers guide in imaging an endless landscape then moved toward—a time/space that may include ancestors, natural elements, and the present sensorial experience simultaneously. Such techniques help dancers avoid the habit of grasping onto what is immediately visible so as to realize a more expanded sense of consciousness. Artist Akira Kasai describes it as closing the second eyelid while leaving the first one open. Such masking is also a strategy in contact improvisation, where softening focus disrupts vision’s dominance so moving bodies can attune to other critical stimuli and act instinctively. In a different variation, former Trisha Brown dancer Vicky Shick instructs students to see what they’re looking at, instead of glazing over in the performed neutrality so common in contemporary dance. Choreographer Deborah Hay is fond of quoting the title of a book on the artist Lawrence Weschler written by Bill Irwin: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by which she means that dancers truly “see” when they stop naming and fixing people and objects when they perform and instead enter into open questioning.
By mid-way through the third week of the NTP, I had learned the kata for the short dance Hagoromo-kiri and had started to use my imagination to access the sensorial realm that the dance created. I had spaced the precise pathways on the small Noh stage, attempted to synch my movements up with the accompanying song, and attended to the direction of my gaze at certain moments that referred to showering gifts and seeing Mount Fuji in the distance. It was all falling into place.
Then I put on the mask. The small eyeholes and requisite posture made it impossible to use my eyes to obtain spatial feedback. As I moved—slowly so as not to bump into our sensai or the pillars (!)—I felt some part of myself sink back so that the figure I was in this dance could extend outward and into what seemed an endless vista between stage and audience. Other newly learned elements also became strange. I could not see the fan I held and instead had to sense not just the slats but also the tip that carved in space to create arcs and extend my arm’s gestures. Echoes of the song resonated and seemed to accompany this creature’s movements. I felt intimacy and great distance at once—both destiny and paths altered.
In several minutes I was returned from the mask to a more immediate reality and the next student had their turn. But its resonance remains. While this encounter reminded me of the other practices I have mentioned, it was also quite different in that I did not have to imagine or consciously try to do anything. Once I put on the mask and attended to the kata, a certain condition was immediate and demanded. Brain concentration took a back seat as my body thought in this new situation.
In the process of completing my dissertation, I came across but could not fully digest certain authors. One is phenomenologist Yasuo Yuasa, who discusses bodily schemes and refers to three circuits: kinesthesis, somesthesis, and emotion-instinct. I have a feeling that with this experience I can now perhaps return to this as a different kind of beginner.