We decided to hold the INI Summer Intensive Workshop in the summer of 2022, while Japan still kept its borders closed to those without a residence/work/study visa, knowing that it would be difficult to welcome guests from abroad. We were glad to receive a number of requests, though only two applicants, Arden Taylor (USA) and Florian Ehrard (GER) were eventually able to participate. While Florian already studied with the INI in the past, Arden joined us for the first time. Arden was kind enough to sent us a thoughtful reflection on the his experience with the INI.
Diego Pellecchia – INI Program Coordinator
I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have had the chance to participate in the International Noh Institute’s summer training program 2022. I am still a novice in noh, having begun my studies of the texts in the third year of my MA at the University of Washington’s Japanese literature program. There is so much to explore just in the renga-influenced text itself, even though I do enjoy the performances, that I assumed (as is perhaps the vice of most literature majors) that the most interesting part of noh was its text. I never could have imagined, before experiencing it first hand, what it really means for a performance tradition to be “transmitted.”
For this year’s program, we had three instructors: Diego Pellecchia, Udaka Tastushige and Udaka Norishige. Diego was our contact while preparing for the program, and was the most strict with us (which I was grateful for) about etiquette during practice. As an American, and particularly a white masculine academic, I recognize the need to practice cultural appreciation rather than appropriation, and Diego was able to help us to be as respectful as possible and to convey our gratitude. Diego is also a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, which means that he was able to impart not only the practical, but also the academic features of noh throughout our practice. Diego’s passion for the art is contagious, and the seriousness with which he treats it gives weight to everything we do together.
The two brothers who were our main instructors, Udaka Tatsushige and Udaka Norishige, had nearly opposite teaching styles, but both myself and my cohort agreed that we felt incredibly lucky precisely because of this. The two styles could be summarized thusly: start from the mind, and start from the body. Like Diego, most of Tatsushige’s lessons were conducted in English. Tatsushige speaks excellent English and takes a very cerebral approach to his practice, which he is very good at conveying. He claims that the process of learning noh was not instinctive for him, and exactly because of that, he developed his own method for conceiving of the motions and intentions behind standard forms in the dance and acting aspects of the performance. It is difficult for me to put into words how much I felt was generously given to me in our talks between practice.
Norishige, on the other hand, more often focuses on the precision of the movements themselves. He speaks in a soft and endearing Kyoto accent, and most often arrived to practice in a yukata. On our first day, he offered us tea and Japanese sweets with the traditional Kyoto omotenashi (welcoming spirit). In addition to the precise corrections of our movements (which effectively cross any language barrier, as they only require observation and imitation), Norishige also took the time to share aspects of the practice that he himself finds fascinating. Among these were photographs of performances he and others had partaken in, as well as the depth and complexity of the musical accompaniment to full noh performances. On one afternoon, I arrived to the training space to find him practicing the kotsuzumi (the smaller of two drums usually included in performance). Although it sounded just like a performance drum to me, he laughed and kindly explained that this was a practice drum, with synthetic materials that – though perfectly suitable for practice – lacked the warmth, resonance, and indeed the organic nature of the true instruments. Numerous engages like this with all three instructors added immeasurable depth and value to the experience, which I am now struggling to put into words.
This year, we also had the additional treat to be able to observe and learn about mask carving from another of the Udaka siblings, Udaka Keiko. Keiko was extremely patient and just as forthcoming as her brothers in explaining her philosophy toward the art, though indeed quite different from the performance aspect. I was taken aback not only by the extremely time-consuming and diligent process of construction, but by Keiko’s unique relationship with her art. She explained that, while the heights in artistry achieved with the Sengoku Period (1467-1615) masks have likely been unmatched even today – resulting in the prevalence of copy-making within the industry – there is never a peak or final stage in the world of art, even one as steeped in tradition as noh. To move past what seems to be a peak in aesthetics requires innovation, and also courage, and yet to reach that point in the first place also requires a lifelong devotion to the history and living nature of the art as it exists today.
I had initially planned to extend my stay in Japan and try another noh training program as well, which also happened to be run out of Kyoto, even though the Kongo School is the only one of the five main noh schools consistently active since the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) that is based in Kyoto. As it happens I was not able to change my flight, but – even though I am loath to leave Kyoto – I am paradoxically grateful for this too. I admit a slight obsession with noh, to the extent that I would gladly take any opportunity to learn more about it. But my main takeaway from this program is, as I said at the start, the importance of transmission.
Noh is not the kind of art that can be explored or studied on one’s own, no matter the effort. It is not a static object that can be bought or handed off at a distance. It is a living tradition that has been conveyed to the present day, master to pupil, for the last seven centuries. While the basics of the art remain the same in each of the five schools, the deeper understanding of what precisely is aesthetically the most appealing and why are unique to each school. But most importantly, noh practice is not simply “practice,” but – as explained by Tatsushige – a combination of “renshu” and “keiko.” While both of these words translate to English as “practice,” only renshu refers to the simple process of repeating certain actions until muscle memory is created. “Keiko” on the other hand involves something much deeper. It involves relationships; between one’s teacher and oneself, oneself and one’s fellow students, and perhaps most of all, between oneself and the piece one is practicing. Anyone can perform the movements in noh, as few are physically demanding and modifications exist for any movements that are. But the main thing that I learned, especially from watching my teachers perform on our last day together, is that two people performing the same piece, even doing the same movements to millimetric precision, will not produce the same results.
Noh is not just an art in itself, it is a tradition that is passed from person to person. Part of that tradition includes a relationship with one’s teacher. It is through this relationship that one achieves understanding of each individual piece, and it is only upon achieving this understanding that the potential for achieving mastery lies. It is said that one cannot be considered a master of noh until reaching the age of sixty, at which point one is considered likely proficient enough to perform certain pieces considered to be of particularly high (or “heavy” in Japanese) kurai (rank). In other words, true mastery of noh requires a lifelong practice, and even then, there are still depths to be reached within this rich tradition. Part of our keiko necessarily included sharing a part of ourselves with our teachers, as they did with us. In that way, as the tradition became a part of us, we too became a part of it.
I was especially lucky – although it is hard not to feel equally guilty about this – that the travel restrictions to Japan meant that there was only one student besides myself in the program this year. This meant that we were able to not only receive very individualized lessons, but also to share in just that much more time with our teachers. It would be difficult to choose a favorite aspect of the program, but the part I most miss is undoubtedly the conversations shared with them. Anyone can, and everyone should, take this incredible opportunity to take part in this centuries-long tradition of performing arts in Japan’s beautiful cultural capital.
Arden Taylor – INI Summer Intensive Program 2022