The word for traditional dance in Japanese, buyō 舞踊、combines the character mai, 舞, with that of odori, 踊, and suggests the syncretic nature of the art form. Whereas dance has been omnipresent in Japan since the beginning of time, the word buyō is a relatively modern invention, coined in the late nineteenth century to distinguish what was then believed to be indigenous to Japan from what was rapidly rushing into the country from the West, such as ballet and ballroom dancing. The two words combine the stately elegance of Noh dance (mai) with the more mimetic dances familiar to the Kabuki stage (odori).
But in truth, buyō is even more complex. It serves as a container for various dance traditions: field and folk celebrations, religious ritual, and the more confined (and refined) performances of the geisha, to name a few. Today there are five major schools of dance: Nishikawa, Fujima, Bando, Hanayagi, and Wakayagi.
Today there are five major schools of dance: Nishikawa, Fujima, Bando, Hanayagi, and Wakayagi.
And although most of the students of buyō are women, the headmasters of the schools are almost invariably male. The schools share most of the same repertoire but approach the dances differently. Their performance styles vary. For example, the Hanayagi school prefers a more vigorous style, with more dramatic interpretations of the set movements, while the Fujima school specializes in movements that are more subtle and suggestive. It was my good fortune to have the opportunity to study with both the Hanayagi and the Nishikawa schools of dance, in training experiences that were over 30 years apart.
For more on Nihon buyō see:
Dehorah S. Klens, “Nihon Buyō in the Kabuki Training Program at Japan’s National Theatre,” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 231-241.
Gunji Masakatsu, Buyo: the Classical Dance (Tokyo: Walker/Weatherhill 1960).
Photo by Kristin Wilson on Unsplash
It’s so interesting that you got to study with two different schools. That seems like unusual in the Japanese traditional arts. Was the style of instruction the same? That is, the protocols for greeting the teacher, working through the lesson, and paying for it? Did you participate in any public recitals?
I thought the protocols were similar. Mind you, there was a 30-year gap between experiences! In the first case, the teacher was about my age. But she still maintained a proper sense of decorum in the classroom. In the second case, the teacher had many years experience and was an established dancer. In both cases I participated in recitals. For the second one, in Kyoto, the sensei had an arrangement with a bridal shop to lend us kimono. (I was in a class with 7-8 college students from the AKP.) It was fun to see how excited the young women got when they were decked out in beautiful kimono! In both recitals I performed “Sakura.” The Hanayagi version was more complex–as expected. I carried a branch of cherry blossoms. And opened and closed my fan. In the Nishikawa version, there was less drama. Otherwise the movements were fairly similar, I think! But, my memory is ….. well…. challenged.
So eloquent. I remember speaking with a geisha in Kamishichiken last year when I mentioned something about “Kyomai,” and she corrected me (very kindly, I would add) that Kyomai meant Gion Kobu, but in Pontocho they didn’t call it Kyomai. I’m always alternately flabbergasted and impressed by these fine distinctions that mean so much.
I love all of those “polite corrections.” I’ve learned so much that way! And you are right that the distinctions are so very fine. Learning is a lifetime!
Kyomai is the name of the style of dance from the Inoue School. The geisha from the Gion Kobu district are students of the Inoue School. Unlike the 5 big schools in the list the Inoue School dances are derived from Noh. It’s a very different style of dance. There is no superfluous movement.