Noh is a form of dance drama: the performance of the shite (main actor) is based on two principal elements, chant (utai) and dance (shimai), whose techniques are transmitted orally during lessons (okeiko). In a chant and dance lesson, students learn excerpts of Noh plays (shimai), similar to arias in Western opera and also learn the chant of complete Noh, beginning with short plays. As the training progresses, excerpts become increasingly long and difficult, and can involve musical accompaniment (maibayashi). The final aim of such training is to be able to perform the main role in a full Noh production. Normally chant and dance training are part of the same course, but it is possible only to learn utai without necessarily studying dance. However, it is not possible to learn to dance without learning how to sing.
Training schedule (chant and dance)
Kyoto: three times a month (one Tuesday, two Wednesdays). Lessons also take place in Matsuyama (Shikoku), Nagoya, and Tokyo. Please contact us for lesson dates.
Special plans are available: contact us for more information. Students are required to purchase separately the necessary personal items for noh practice: tabi white split-toe socks (around 700yen) and a Kongō-style Noh dance fan (5000yen).
A day at the okeikoba (training space)
The content and modality of chant and dance lessons vary greatly according to the level of expertise of the student: here is a simple description of a beginner Noh lesson where both chant and dance of the same piece are studied.
A beginner’s chant lesson starts with breathing exercises. Correct breathing is the foundation of correct voice projection: expand the chest, lower the diaphragm, create a wide soundbox. Focusing on breathing also helps the transition from an quotidian mode into a ‘study mode’, in which one is more receptive. Vocalization exercises (producing long vowel sounds at different pitches) relax the muscles involved in chanting, and warms up the voice. At this point the lesson proper begins: the teacher sits in front of you, and you open the utai-bon (a script with musical notations). Don’t worry if you are not familiar with Japanese! At the INI we have produced our own basic utai-bon with romanized transcriptions and running translations in English. The training method is simple: the teacher sings a line, and asks you to repeat, then sings the following line, and asks you to repeat. The sections practiced become increasingly long until you have mastered how to sing the whole part. At this point, you are ready to learn the dance.
The first thing you will learn in a dance training session is kamae, the basic stance that is kept throughout the dance, and suriashi, which is the unique walking technique making Noh performers look as if they were gliding on stage. Once you have familiarized with these two fundamentals, the teacher will guide you through the dance, demonstrating how to execute movement segments known as kata. It is possible to break down the choreography of any Noh dance into smaller kata, which means that in your first lessons you will learn basic movements that you will later be able to use in other dances as you progress in your training. Many kata are abstract movements, such as the common shikake-hiraki (four steps forward, point with the fan, three steps back as you open both arms and return to your starting position), which takes different meanings according to the verses that accompany it: one fascinating aspects of Noh is the possibility for the performer to portray characters, paint landscapes, or evoke emotional universes, just by using your body. The only essential property used in Noh is the fan, which is manipulated in a various ways to symbolize a cup of rice wine offered by a noblewoman, the flowing of a waterfall, or a warrior’s sword. Noh plays draw from legends, classic poetry, military chronicles, or court novels, and are categorized according to the nature of the shite. The chant and dance style varies depending on the character that is portrayed. In the tradition of the Kongō School, followed by the INI, basic dance include Oimatsu, featuring the stately dance of a majestic old pine; Yuya, in which a beautiful young court lady dances under a shower of cherry petals; Shōjō, a sake-loving elf-like creature from China; Tsurukame, in which the Emperor of China celebrates the arrival of spring blessing the land and his people.