Beyond Hip Hop Style: Feeling and Form in Noh’s “Big Pants” (Ōkuchi)

Contributed by Megan Nicely

[Editor’s note: Megan Nicely is an artist/scholar whose choreography and writing focus on American and Japanese experimental dance. She holds an MFA in dance from Mills College, a PhD in performance studies from New York University, and is currently Assistant Professor at University of San Francisco. Her upcoming show is September 26-28, 2013 at Kunst-Stoff Arts in San Francisco. Megan was a participant in the TN Costume Workshop, Kyoto & Fukuyama Japan, June 12-18, 2013.]

Author after being dressed in Ōkuchi, Oshima Noh-gaku Do, Fukuyama

Author after being dressed in Ōkuchi, Oshima Noh-gaku Do, Fukuyama

Sweat runs in small rivers down the backs of my legs and my shoulders uphold weighted layers of finely woven silk fabric. My core engages, anchoring down into the ground so as to remain unswayed during the firm tugs that whip back and forth like strong wind. My head reminds itself to remain center, not deviating to follow curiosity and observe what it happening down below, which is clearly an effort of great care, precision, and importance. I stand and wait with patience as the procedure gets underway, a flurry of activity and voices arising from behind and below. Time slips over itself, both urgent and expansive.

An innovation in noninvasive medicine?

The latest spa treatment?

A mob tactic elicited to gain vital information?

No, instead I am being dressed as a male figure in the noh play Shari as part of the 2013 Theatre Nohgaku Costume Workshop in Fukuyama, Japan. I am backstage at the Oshima family’s home-cum-theatre with fellow workshop participants Fritz Faust, Morit Gaifman, Jubilith Moore, and John Oglevee as we try our many hands at dressing one another in the intricately detailed layers that comprise noh stage attire.

Instructed by Oshima Teruhisa and overseen by his sister Oshima Kinue (both acclaimed noh performers of the Oshima Nohgakudo) their father Oshima Masanobu, and assisted by Terada Ryoji, we fold and sew and tie and try again and again as we wait for “no good” to turn to “hai hai hai.” Patience and economy work together on both sides of the dressing equation. The shite, or main role, must look impeccable onstage, and thus great care is taken to make sure all lines created stay in place during movement. At the same time, the costume is a small pressure cooker and thus must be donned as quickly as possible right before the performance so as to minimize the amount of time spent in it (the actor will then perform for an hour or more onstage).

The line between accuracy and expediency must be constantly navigated during the dressing process. Decisions as to which folds are most important when under deadline must be known, with small hidden tucks sometimes necessary in place of exactitude. The knots and tie maneuvers must flow like water, without thinking, just by feel. The relationship between the front and back dressers is key to this choreography. As the ties pass back and forth, the tension is maintained but shifts to accommodate where the action is.

Ōkuchi at Sasaki Noh Costumes, Kyoto

Ōkuchi at Sasaki Noh Costumes, Kyoto. Monica Bethe in foreground.

Putting on the Ōkuchi, my favorite of the costume’s prostheses, begins with the shite stepping into the pants (which are lowered and raised by the dressers as I step in, one leg at a time). The front it tied up first, the waist sash usually folded once and aligned with the koshi-obe already in place over the kimono layers, which in this case are folded in front in a split so that the legs can move. Simultaneously, the back ties are inserted through the koshi-obe top to bottom and looped over the bane, a wooden “Y” also inserted into the koshi-obe in the back, the small base curve facing away rather than toward the sacrum.

Wooden bane seen in center with Ōkuchi being tied.

Wooden bane seen in center with ōkuchi being tied around it.

This maneuver raises the back of the pants up in a kind of rope and pulley system, necessary to accommodate panels stiffened with either tatami or ribs of woven thread. The front ties are passed to the back dresser who, arms crossed on the outside of the back ties, right arm underneath, accepts the front ties and pulls them through with a flourish, then crosses the ties above the koshi-obe knot and gives a small tug before passing them front again. The front is tied like a hakama, and the cross (again right under left) moves to either side to snug thing up before the top sash is turned over to neatly lie flat below the waistline. Again, ties move to the back dresser. From here, arms crossed this time inside the back ties, the front ties are again pulled through and then form the standard back knot after a warming for “tightening” that if done too quickly can take one’s breath away.

Then the moment of truth: the back ties hanging down inside the pants are moved to the foreground and passed to the front dresser who pulls them down. The pants raise in back as if by magic, and the back dresser pauses the process just at the top of the bane, turns their arms and hands backward in a position that surely eventually feels natural but to me is a new yoga pose, then tucks the top of the Ōkuchi into the bane and says “ready.” The front person gives a satisfyingly firm tug, locking the garment into position.

Checking the sides to make sure they are indeed secured behind the bane so that no paparazzi moments occur onstage, the ties are then knotted in front like a hakama, neatly centered and forming a small cross of folds. With the addition of the sobatsugi over the top, and more intricate folding and hand smoothing, the resultant form has a wonderful bustle in back, which provides support for the kamae form. Gold threads shimmer as this regal figure makes his way forward. Needless to say, while this apparel shares much with Victorian hoop skirts and corsetry, the purpose is somewhat different if equally restrictive. Breathing is supported rather than reduced in the lower lungs (although of course with the addition of a wig and mask it is certainly still a challenge).

As I admire my extended self in the mirror, all thoughts of claustrophobia turn to calm anticipation as new energy arises to fill the form. Walking as if for the first time, I feel quite invincible in the new life this costume affords my experience. One can’t help but feel gratitude to dressers who make one look so fabulous. Now to get a posse of such dressers at home to make my own closet come to life and take to the street in such style.

fabric_detail

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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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