2023 NO.35


Dancing Japan!


Traditionalists and Innovators

A young noh performer carries on 600 years of history and a dancer pioneers new expressions to convey classical themes. Transcending a specific age, Japanese culture, both old and new, blossoms on the dance stage.

Photo: Kurihara Osamu

Kanze Saburota

Masked in the titular role, Saburota gives a magnificent performance in Okina.

Dance as Prayer

Performers of noh, the world’s oldest existing theater tradition involving song and dance, move slowly as if stamping the stage with their feet, accompanied by flute and small and large hand drums and a chorus chanting in verse form. Originating in the 14th century, noh techniques and styles have been handed down the generations to the present day.

One of the most promising young noh performers to carry on this tradition is Kanze Saburota. His father, Kanze Kiyokazu, is the 26th head of the Kanze school and a descendant of Kan’ami and Zeami, the founders of noh.

“I practice every day with my teacher [his father]. I watch and learn each and every movement and replicate them again and again.”

Saburota standing in kamae, the fundamental noh pose — chin pulled in and hips held tight

Saburota made his stage debut at the age of five, taking on a shite (leading role) for the first time at the age of 10. At 16, he performed his first hatsuomote role in mask. Under the guidance of his father, Kiyokazu, he has continued to grow, and in 2022, at the age of 23, he performed the titular role in Okina, a classic in the Kanze school repertoire.

Okina is not a typical noh play, as there is no story as such. Rather it is a sacred rite danced by performers as prayer for the people. Performing as divine figures, the solemn dance serves as a memorial for the dead and a prayer for peace in the future.

“If the feeling of prayer does not come naturally from within, the dance will not be good. For this reason, I was taught that it is also important that one behaves correctly in life, as well.”

While working hard to carry on the traditional Japanese art, Saburota has recently taken on the challenge of creating new noh plays with contemporary themes. He says he hopes to create opportunities for people unfamiliar with classic Japanese arts to discover an interest in noh.

“Noh plays unfold with only a few words and gestures, and many people may find it difficult to understand. But a great aspect of noh is the ability to use your imagination and interpret it in your own way.”

Moriyama Kaiji

Katana represents the sharpness of the Japanese sword through a highly toned body. Photo: Yoshikazu Inoue

Dancing Between Presence and Absence

Moriyama Kaiji is a leading figure in the field of contemporary dance. He captivates audiences with the one-of-a-kind expressivity of his dance, bringing fluid movements that form supple curves together with linear movements that cut sharply through space.

“I often move in an airy, floaty way. This is to express lightness. I want to eliminate heaviness and, if possible, eliminate even my own presence. I dance in pursuit of this feeling.”

With Yu-Zuru, which he debuted in 2001, Moriyama did in fact capture this feeling. The dance is based on the Japanese folk tale Tsuru no Ongaeshi about a crane who takes human form to repay a favor to an elderly couple. Is the performer a bird, a person, or something not even of this world? Moriyama danced this story of an ambiguous entity in an attempt to depict absence. From that point on, he says, “Expressing that space ‘between presence and absence’ has been a theme for me.”

Since then, he has been developing a wide range of stage productions that address Japanese culture, including Katana, in which he portrays a sharpened Japanese sword, and Ninja, which incorporates ninja sorcery in a dance filled with humor.

“I would like to develop a uniquely Japanese physical expression by depicting things that are difficult to see, such as the spirit embedded in the sword and the movements ninja use to disguise their presence.”

Ninja depicts the image of the ninja in humorous physical movements. Photo: SHIKAMA Takashi Photo courtesy of: New National Theatre, Tokyo

Moriyama says, “I want my body to continue to be able to transform into any type of presence.” Photo: Studio ARCHITANZ