Dancing the Crone

Contributed by Greg Giovanni

[Editor’s note: Greg Giovanni is a poet/playwright/performance artist working in Philadelphia, PA. Theatre Nohgaku company member, Greg is the author of the English-language noh Pine Barrens. Greg contributes his thoughts about the shimai he danced this year for Noh Training Project 2013.]

This year, I’m dancing Yamamba: the crone, the ageless hag (or demoness) of the mountains.  She can change shape at will.  She helps the wood cutters find their way home.  As a wood sparrow, she sings to the over-worked weaver-woman.  An empty cicada shell is her robe.  She wanders around the mountains contemplating wrong and right until at last there is no difference.  “The willows are green the flowers are red, things are what they are.”   It is a difficult dance—long and full of abstract movements.

greg_giovann_1When learning new dances—depending on the play—there are some actions that are mimetic (therefore easy to remember—if not to perform.)  However, most of the movements (kata) are abstract actions—and that is what kills you.  In my first year of study, Rick-sensei often said, “Don’t worry about the play, just learn the kata.”   But it does helps knowing that you are pointing at the moon or a stream or a shrine—it is something to hold onto while you are desperately trying to remember the next unintuitive dance step.

There are the ten or eleven basic kata that are repeated in every dance I have learned.  They are the steps you learn in your first year and train to perform the rest of your life:  Shikake, hirake, shitome, miro ire, sayu and another five, or seven. They translate to things like ‘point, open, scoop,’ etc., and at times carry any meaning the dancer wishes to give them.  Sometimes in, say, a shikake (pointing) step you are pointing at an actually thing, in many cases you are just pointing.

In noh we say “Feel 100 per cent and show 30.”  So a neophyte viewer watching an early training recital may well think  “If you’ve seen one uchi komi, you’ve seen them all” but, certainly, complexity is crafted by the underlying emotion.  A new student is first trained in women’s and young men’s roles where the kata is basic but its complexity is so subtle, only great actors can demonstrate real intent.   So a beginner must memorize a series of movements that seem, on the face of it, meaningless.  The frustration for western—meaning obsessed—actors is short lived. There is so much to get used to in the study of noh, one is happy to let meaning come when it will.

greg_giovanni_4At this juncture in my training, I am expected to understand what I am performing.  As far as Yamamba-kuse is concerned, I fully understand it is a difficult dance and a hugely difficult song for the chorus: eight minutes of protracted, severe (go-gin) singing.  The combination of old woman and demon had me flummoxed.  Every movement must be filled with immense power. The dance is at first measured and intense, then large and lighting fast.   I’ve danced women’s roles (measured and intense,) a few warriors, and some demons.  Yamamba is all those things in separate measure—a particular relationship between aged elegance and muscle.  She is so ancient she has become powerful deity.   Unnoticed and bent with age, yet she will help lumberjacks lift their load.  She is kind but uncaring (and in some folk-tales even has a penchant for cannibalism!)  Invisible to most, she is the mountain itself.

In training, there is always correction and not-as-often compliments.  When you first learn the kata you are corrected at every step.  Beginners often are challenged by this method, but one grows accustomed to never being right. In recent rehearsal (after memorizing the kata, landing the actions, such as they are, onto the right medieval words) I heard the refrain of “Slower!  SLOWER!”  It seem that my stage crosses where too efficient.  All noh greg_giovanni_2dance requires first holding back, then developing, then completion (SEE: Jo Ha Kyu.)  Yamamba-kuse, in particular, is performed with extensive restraint that develops imperceptibly, and then erupts into a series of explosive kata.  I push my energy forward, barely moving, and try to arrive just in time to perform the abstracted narrative action.  There is hardly a syllable to give one-way or the other.  So much practice!

During a recent lesson, a new student who is studying flute, in a pique of frustration, thrust his nohkan to our ever-patient teacher, and said, “Can you play that note on this?  I just need to know you can actually get that sound on this flute.” I feel the same way about my dance.  I need to know that the master’s dance can be played on my instrument.  Yesterday, my body seized up—it wouldn’t perform the action that followed a burst of activity.  I hung there helpless willing my muscles to move as the chant continued unabated.  My mind understood the next moment but my body, frozen, refused to perform—a painful moment and one that I have experienced before.  It took tremendous will to complete the simple action.

Here in Bloomsburg, PA, I gaze at the Appalachian foothills and think of my older lady-friends back at home—the Philly Crones.  They do not care for your religion; they care for your soul.  They know life is pain and hardship but, without passing judgment, they help ease your load.  Yamamba:  she is the monster-mother beyond all mothers, a helper who never guides, and the demon/angel who is as close as the furthest mountain.  She is the hag, the crone.

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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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