Structure and Substance

Contributed by John Oglevee
Photographs by David Surtasky

Japanese Textiles and the Art of Sculpting Kimono,
Theatre Nohgaku’s Costume Workshop, June 2014

_DSC1620What is it that we wear? Each time we dress, we are entering a kind of costume. We are, consciously or not, projecting an image of “self.” The consideration of what we drape, wrap, squeeze into, don, tie, button, zipper up or put on, is an integral part of our daily ritual. And yet, much like the journey our food takes from seed to table that we take for granted, our garments too come from “the store.” How many hands have come in contact with what I wear? Certainly over the past few years much has been written about (aka exposed) about the slave labor and hellish conditions in which most of the worlds clothing is made. The other day I happened to be in America at a branch of the awfully fancy Needless Markup, I mean Neiman Marcus when I glanced at the “Made in China” label embossed in gold on the $400 Prada shoes that were “on sale.” I stared long and hard at the shoes admiring their style and tried hard to picture a craftsman smiling as they constructed a modern day footwear icon. The image never materialized in my head. Is it my own prejudice molded from my personal consumption of digital media memes? Most certainly.

_DSC1637As I listen and learn from Monica Bethe, who has been considering, dying, weaving, spinning, sewing and sharing her passion for the textile arts and in particular her expertise in noh costuming for close to 50 years, I am humbled once again by the magnitude of the artistry of the noh craftsman. Bouncing around through the garment district in Kyoto being witness to artisans plying techniques honed over generations is a far cry from my memories of racks of factory produced consumables being wheeled through the streets of the garment district of New York. As I stood surrounded by towering looms and ingested the sights and sounds of the some of the earliest digital machines, the jacquard loom, I was struck by their intricate mechanisms, while simultaneously awash in a comfort of knowing that with my naked eye I could understand how it worked. And while I am woefully ignorant of the terminology of such machinery, with my eye I could follow the thread from the pile newly dyed on the factory floor all the way into the weavers hands as the weft, or tied onto the loom as the warp. In a world where I am constantly wondering how anything works, it is so satisfying to witness and comprehend a process that is so complicated and produces such beauty.

_DSC1688The question arose as to why such intricate garments are worn in noh when so little is actually seen by the audience. One explanation offered is that noh offers an intensely “real” experience for the audience. No one is going to noh to be whisked away and lose oneself in a dramatic verisimilitude. The performer does not succumb to their character of their performance, the audience is not tricked into a suspension of disbelief, it is in fact the opposite. The contract between performer and observer is that great pains are being taken to present the truth of a character or story through the real. The amount of time and energy put into the craft of making each element on display is to be considered and savored. To that end, when things can’t be “real” they are abstracted to be mere skeletons of truth, to allow the audience to see the fragility of structure without substance. This can be seen in the bamboo frames wrapped in cloth that serve as stage props.

_DSC1668Noh asks both performer and audience to examine life in its most detailed while painting large poetic calculated strokes that are full of references and connections to be made. There are no empty gestures in noh for even if the expression is simply moving a hand up to ones face, there are literally layers of craft between that hand and that face. The performer strives to fulfill their job of giving life to the art that they are dressed in, that covers their face, and  that reverberates through the air as sound, as the audience attempts to take it all in. As an audience, one can let noh wash over you and allow its silences to inspire, but the active participant is rewarded as the observation of details reveals the inner workings of the human soul.

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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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