Part Two: The Choreographer and the Secret Lessons

I can’t tell you her name.

I promised to keep her Nihon buyō lessons confidential.

That sounds odd, I suppose.

It’s not as if she is stealing secrets or trying to profit off the hard work of others. The lessons she gives are free. And she offers them out of the goodness of her own heart. Even so, they challenge a long tradition of master-disciple inheritance.

Nihon buyō, the umbrella term used to describe a variety of traditional performances of Japanese dance, is governed by strict lines of hierarchy and licensure.

Practitioners study for years under the direction of a certain master and in the style of a certain school. If a dancer is talented and persistent, and if the master is receptive, the dancer can petition to receive a shihan or teaching license. Usually at that time the dancer will also receive a natori or professional stage name. The license and stage name denote that the dancer has learned the movements unique to the school and is therefore trusted to carry on the traditions through teaching. In Nihon buyō’s early years, the succession to the master’s name was usually tied to blood. Most who inherited the name were family members—by birth or by adoption. These days, the natori process can be colored by favoritism and politics.

Suffice it to say, who is and who isn’t allowed to teach is cumbersome and costly. The strict rules protect the purity of the movements. But when naming successors grows fraught, the endurance of the art is jeopardized.

My friend, my nameless friend, therefore skirts these lines by teaching without a license. In a way, what she is doing today is similar to what my first dance teacher, Ura Sensei, did over forty years ago, as I described in an earlier post.

Ura Sensei taught me and a few other foreigners informally. Since she did not have a license, technically, she could not teach. But her teacher gave her permission to share her art with us, because it was assumed we would never go very far. By teaching us, she was not dodging the licensure hierarchy.

My friend isn’t imperiling the licensure either. But since her “lessons” are a bit out-of-the-ordinary, I will withhold her name.

“Would you like to come watch one of my dance practices,” she asked after I returned to Kyoto.

“It’s part of a project I’ve been working on. I’m teaching contemporary dancers to perform classical Japanese pieces.”

My friend is a celebrated choreographer. She spent over twenty years in New York performing in the contemporary dance world. Since she was a Japanese national, people always asked about her Japanese roots, assuming that she would come automatically equipped with knowledge of traditional Japanese dance. My friend had initially trained in ballet before transitioning to contemporary.

She had never studied traditional Japanese dance. She felt her art lay in other performance styles.

Tired of the constant queries, however, she eventually returned to Japan to study Nihon buyō.

When we talked about her experiences in traditional dance, I was somewhat familiar with the practice methods since I had studied, though briefly, in the Hanayagi School and then later in the Nishikawa School. My friend’s training, however, is much more extensive and has focused on the dance of the larger, Kabuki stage.

One of the most difficult pieces she has studied, and the one that most influenced her later contemporary choreography, is Kyōganoko Musume Dōjōji, “The Maiden of Dōjōji,” which I described in my earlier post.

The dance, one of the oldest Kabuki pieces to have originated in the even older Noh theater, is extremely long. From beginning to end, it lasts almost an hour, and on the Kabuki stage the dancer makes several spectacular costume changes, the kind that take place in the blink of an eye and in full view of the audience.

“The Maiden of Dōjōji” is really a tour de force for an onnagata, the male actor who performs the female roles on the Kabuki stage. The dance charts both the subtle and fierce movement of a young woman’s heart. The onnagata must channel the spirit of a young woman who has the strength of a demon.

“It is such a complicated dance,” my friend explained, “that it is rarely taught these days, and when it is, it costs a fortune in training fees.”

Traditional arts are costly to learn as well as time consuming, no matter the piece or the genre. It takes years of practice before a dance teacher will consider introducing a pupil to a dance as difficult as “The Maiden of Dōjōji.” And then once the teacher begins the training, it takes years to master the dance itself. Along the way, the pupil must cover the costs of lessons and special gifts. Should the teacher allow the pupil to perform publicly, the pupil must pay for recital fees and also the purchase of practice and stage costumes, fans, and other accessories.

“The Maiden of Dōjōji” takes a lot out of a dancer, both in terms of time and money. But to be able to perform the dance is a pinnacle of achievement.

Because my friend feels there is benefit in contemporary dancers crossing the aisle, as it were, to study traditional dance, she volunteers her time teaching them. She does this not so that they can perform on the traditional stage—which would be nearly impossible—but so that they can experience, somatically, the way the body adapts to a different mode of movement.

Learning new dance movements, teaching their bodies to conform to different styles will make them better dancers.

“We’ve been practicing this particular dance for about four years now,” my friend told me. “I’m interested in how these dancers—trained in other genres—experience and absorb the traditional movements. It’s really fascinating.”

In my next post, I will share the experience I had attending my friend’s practice session and watching her teach sections of this complex dance.

Please keep an eye on this blog for the next installment of “Dancing Dōjōji—Finding the Demon Within.”