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A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Classical Dance

When I see a dancer wearing a kimono, white face make-up, and a decorated updo, it’s hard to suppress images of the iconic geisha that pop into my head. But 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellow Gertrude Yukie Tsutsumi, pictured above, is not a geisha, though in performance she has a similar look. Tsutsumi practices a traditional dance form known as nihon buyo (Japanese classical dance). Dating back to the early 17th century, the tradition of nihon buyo is, in fact, inextricably linked to both the Japanese theater tradition of kabuki and the practice of Zen Buddhism.

It takes years to gain a deep understanding of this centuries-old tradition, but here’s a crash course to get you ready for the National Heritage Fellowships Ceremony and Concert on October 1 and 2! These nine key points will help you appreciate the simple aesthetic yet complex world of nihon buyo.

The Backstory

Kabuki: In the early 17th century, kabuki started as an all-female, avant-garde theatrical dance form, but because of government concern with women dancing wildly in public, in 1629, women were banned from the kabuki stage. This led to the establishment of all-male kabuki, which continues to this day, in which men play both male and female roles. Although women were banned from the stage, dance continued to be an important part of middle-class women’s upbringing as a way to develop social graces and basic etiquette. Today, all-male kabuki continues to influence female-dominated nihon buyo, which in turn, also greatly influences the kabuki world.  

Iemoto system: Iemoto means “headmaster” and refers to the strict hierarchical master-disciple teaching system in which most Japanese traditional arts operate. The iemoto system ensures the art form is passed on within a regulated school of practice, and different schools within a certain art form develop their own distinct styles. The position of headmaster of a particular school of practice is usually inherited. However, when there is no successor, a top student is chosen and even legally adopted into the family to continue the artistic lineage.

Natori: One’s natori is one’s professional stage name. The importance of lineage is clearly demonstrated in the ceremonial tradition of bestowing the natori on qualified students who have passed the school’s various examinations. Upon receiving the natori, the student becomes officially bound to the particular school of artistic practice and takes on the same surname as well as a new personal name (comprised of the first part of the student’s teacher’s name plus a personal signifier that reflects the particular student). For example, Tsutsumi’s natori is Onoe Kikunobu. She received her natori from the Onoe School, and her teacher was Onoe Kikunojo I. Upon receiving the natori, the artist can never change schools. 

What to Look For On Stage

Pantomime: Nihon buyo and kabuki rely heavily on pantomime to act out the story being sung. The movements can range from realistic mimed gestures to abstract representations of the story. In addition to the dancer’s own body being used to pantomime a story, various props are also used.

Props: The quintessential prop used in nihon buyo is a fan manipulated by the dancer to help tell stories. As an extension of the dancer’s body, a fan can transform into various objects— a leaf in the wind, cherry blossom petals falling, swaying waves, a sake cup, a mirror— or convey intangible aspects of the dance, such as emotion or atmosphere.

Musical accompaniment: Music in Japanese classical dance typically includes narrative song; shamisen (a three-stringed lute played with a plectrum); and percussion, such as the hand-held tsuzumi (hourglass drum) and bell. 

Aesthetics to Look For

Ma: Ma is a Japanese aesthetic concept that refers to the negative space between elements; emptiness. Ma is pervasive in virtually all Japanese traditional arts such as dance, ikebana (flower arranging), Zen rock gardens, brush painting, music, and even sushi! When I was learning to play the koto, a13-stringed zither instrument, my teacher described ma using the example of a rice ball or piece of sushi. She said, “The space between the individual grains of rice is just as important as the rice itself, because if you just mushed the rice all together without leaving space, you would end up with a dense ball of rice goo, rather than a delicious piece of sushi.” Similarly, the space and pauses in Japanese traditional dance present the audience with a still tableau during which they can appreciate the dance as a whole, including the carefully controlled movements and gestures.

Wabi-sabi: Another Japanese aesthetic concept, wabi-sabi is centered on beauty that is simple, unadorned, natural, irregular, imperfect, and symbolic of the transience of life. This aesthetic employs minimal elements for maximum effect; hence, the use of subtle movements, pantomiming, and simple props in nihon buyo to conjure entire scenes from a story. This aesthetic is highly influenced by Zen Buddhism and can be seen in tea ceremony, bonsai, and haiku, among other traditional Japanese arts.

Jo-ha-kyu: Jo-ha-kyu is a third Japanese aesthetic concept that refers to the linear format of movement applied in various Japanese traditional arts, such as music and dance, which begins slowly, gradually speeds up, and then races to a swift ending.

Now that you’re an expert in Japanese traditional dance, see if you can spot some of the elements above in these performances by Gertrude Yukie Tsutsumi featured on arts.gov. (Click on the Video tab.) 

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