Classical Japanese Dance: A Special Performance Celebrates Dancing as Life

Courtesy of The Japanese Classical Dance Association Inc.
Fujima Sawako performs in “Chi Sui Ka Fu Ku soshite Odori.”

The Japanese Classical Dance Association Inc., whose members include nihonbuyo (classical Japanese dance) dancers as well as kabuki actors, uploaded a video of a dance production titled “Chi Sui Ka Fu Ku soshite Odori” (Earth, water, fire, wind, sky and dance) on Jan. 2. It can be viewed online for a fee until Jan. 15.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deprived nihonbuyo buyo dancers of live performance opportunities, but they were united in the mind-set that “dancing is life.” They set out to produce a video with the determination to create a piece that presents hope through dance.

The production was conceived and directed by Onoe Kikunojo, who heads the Onoe school of classical Japanese dance and is known for his choreography for kabuki and other theatrical productions. Kikunojo, whom I introduced in this column last year, is one of the young leaders of nihonbuyo. He has been involved in various activities to make the dance genre self-sufficient as a job for professional dancers, especially female dancers.

I lost no time in watching the video. At the beginning, veteran kabuki actor Matsumoto Hakuo appears in a costume that makes him look like a Shinto priest. Watching him offer a prayer inside a shrine, I was strongly reminded that nihonbuyo has been closely linked to shrine rituals since ages past.

The protagonist throughout the production is young female dancer Fujima Sawako. As I report on theater as well, I have seen her perform in a play as an actress. I remember her pleasant, crystal-clear acting style, which was very impressive. This time, she dances the role of a tennyo, or heavenly maiden, in a white costume.

The performance was filmed not inside a theater but on location. The dancers traveled to various scenic places, such as the open-air stage at the Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, which was founded by world-famous contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto on a site overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the Niyodo River in Kochi Prefecture, which is known as one of the clearest streams in Japan, where they gave a dance performance as an expression of life.

Particularly impressive is a sequence in which Sawako enters the river to purify herself. She walks into the visibly limpid water, looking almost translucent herself, as if becoming one with water. Is it an optical illusion?

The video, which lasts about 40 minutes, does not have a definite storyline, I think. Simply put, the production was immensely pleasing, as it was a harmonious combination of the beauty of nature in Japan; dancers’ sometimes energetic, sometimes elegant movements; and music that sounded like ancient kagura ceremonial dance accompaniment.

The performance reminded me of words by kabuki actor and living national treasure Bando Tamasaburo, who specializes in female roles. When I interviewed him in the past, he told me: “Buyo [dance] is about the universe like waka and other poetry. [Its] soul slips into [me] spontaneously.” Indeed, I felt as if something pure and pleasant pervading my own body as I watched the video.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.