Okinawa Theater Nurtures New Performances for Future of Traditional Performing Arts

Courtesy of National Theatre Okinawa
One of the many dance scenes performed during a production at National Theatre Okinawa in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, on Jan. 13.

NAHA — National Theatre Okinawa marked its 20th anniversary with an eye-catching new production, but its greatest contribution to traditional performing arts is perhaps its nurturing of new performers who are carrying on these unique traditions.

Since opening in January 2004, the theater in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, has established itself as a home for traditional Okinawan performing arts, especially kumi-odori dance dramas. The theater also has taken on the challenge of rolling out independent productions and steadily training a new generation of performers and musicians capable of keeping these performing arts alive.

On Jan. 13, a production held at the theater to commemorate its 20th anniversary featured a star-studded lineup of performers which included seven living national treasures. It showcased Ryukyuan buyo dance and court music, but the biggest highlight was the event’s final performance — a new kumi-odori drama themed on a “dance of celebration.” This performance was choreographed by Shinji Kinjo, who has been the theater’s artistic director since 2022.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shinji Kinjo, the artistic director of National Theatre Okinawa

In the story, the protagonist decides to hold a new banquet for his mother’s birthday occasion that is celebrated every 12 years in Okinawa. His cousin, who is asked to help with the event, embarks on a journey in search of a dancer like never before in Shuri, the capital of the Ryukyu kingdom, which governed Okinawa from the 15th to the 19th centuries. A pair of sisters famous for being brilliant dancers then enters and flutters in time with music played on a sanshin, a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument unique to Okinawa. The inclusion of many dances was a novel choice for this kumi-odori performance, which usually has a heavy focus on storytelling.

Sixteen of the 22 performers and musicians involved in the production are graduates of a program run by National Theatre Okinawa that trains new generations to pass on kumi-odori, first launched in fiscal 2005. Kinjo, the artistic director, was also among the first performers to complete the three-year program, in which participants learn practical skills such as etiquette and movements on stage, as well as classical Ryukyuan language.

Interest in this training program has increased in recent years, and the number of applicants is about double the number of spots available. So far, 57 people have finished the program, and most of them continue to be involved with the stage.

National Theatre Okinawa presents more than 20 productions annually, including kumi-odori, Ryukyuan dance and Okinawan plays. Audience numbers have been steady, between 12,000 and 18,000 annually, excluding the period during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to long-time favorites created by Chokun Tamagusuku, the father of kumi-odori, the theater also stages original and classical performances which had been overlooked until this facility was opened. The theater is continuing to research local traditional performing arts, and in 2019 it received high acclaim for a show held on a reproduction of a Ryukyu Kingdom-era outdoor stage.

Making these performing arts more popular among younger generations remains a challenge for the theater — since opening, the core audience have been seniors in their 60s, or older. However, the facility is pushing ahead with efforts such as holding classes for children to watch performances, and voice-over guides for foreign visitors, who have been attending in growing numbers in recent years.

“I want to create new fans while having younger generations of performers try new roles and theater programs,” Kinjo said.