Noh trouble crossing over
Cross-fertilisation of artistic cultures has been a part of the modern art scene for a while. Consider bhangra, Bollywood and the Beatles (remember the sitar in Within You Without You?). But some cultural enclaves have proved more resistant to collaboration than others.
Enter Jannette Cheong, who has stepped into one such rarified preserve: Japan's noh, an art form combining music, dance and drama that has been practised since the early 14th century. The fact that a woman is making this foray is remarkable enough, as noh has always been a near-exclusive male domain. But her contribution of a libretto in English is highly unusual.
Cheong is believed to be the first British writer to successfully tackle the strictures involved in producing a traditional noh play in a language foreign to the art form. The result, Pagoda, can be heard at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on July 6. Presented by the Oshima Noh Theatre and Theatre Nohgaku, the one-off performance is also supported by the British Council.
Cheong confirms there have been non-Japanese libretti before. Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats wrote plays in English that were later adapted for noh in Japan. But, says Cheong, 'Pagoda is the first English-language noh to be written by a British playwright as a fully realised noh performance'. The 60-year-old writer adds: 'There are a handful of Chinese plays in the classical noh repertory, but this is the only Chinese story among the English-language noh.'
Pagoda first played in 2009 to sell-out performances in London, Dublin, Oxford and Paris. The current tour takes it from Tokyo to Kyoto, Beijing and Hong Kong. Takasago, the accompanying work in the programme, is by Zeami, born in 1363 and credited with perfecting noh as it exists today. He set the guidelines for the art form two centuries before Shakespeare took up his quill. The pairing provides an opportunity to see ancient and modern side by side - audiences can not only judge if time stands still during a performance, but also whether the medium is the embodiment of timelessness.
Born in London to a British mother and Chinese father, Cheong produced Pagoda as a labour of love. The action on stage loosely marries elements of an ancient Chinese legend with her own family story.
The plot revolves around a traveller from the West looking for her father's roots. Carrying a keepsake, she travels to his birthplace where, at an ancient pagoda, she meets the distressed spirits of an old woman and her daughter. The old woman has not seen her son since he boarded a ship to escape the ravages of a famine years before. It emerges the son is the traveller's father. His spirit is summoned by the keepsake and this reunites him with his family in the spirit world.
Cheong's father died suddenly in 1973, bringing home to her just how little she knew of his provenance. Pushing against the heavy doors of the Cultural Revolution in the process of discovering more about him, she travelled to the mainland in 1975. The only lead she had was a tattered envelope bearing the name of a relative.
Armed only with this name, she struck gold when consulting archives at a university. This led to a village in the southeast, where she met her father's youngest sister, who told Cheong what she wanted to know: her father had been brought up with five siblings in a poor family. His mother realised he would die from the effects of the famine that gripped the region in the late 1920s unless she arranged his escape by sea. This led to his migration and his survival.
Noh is an art form that unfolds slowly with a mesmerising effect akin to the minimalism movement in classical music. Even Karlheinz Stockhausen, the late German avant garde composer famed for excesses such as pitting string sounds against rotor blades in his Helicopter String Quartet, was brought down by the stasis of noh. Stockhausen found similarities to the measured delivery of Japanese tea ceremonies and the face-offs in sumo wrestling.
'One is unbelievably concentrated on the smallest changes for a long period of time,' he once wrote. 'It can take 20 minutes for a man to move from the stage entrance to the middle of the stage. And one isn't bored for a minute. One is extremely concentrated.'
Cheong refers to the effect as 'less is more'. But the understatement is not just a counterbalance to the pace of a fast-moving world. 'The approach means that complex thoughts, ideas and perceptions are layered and polished - much like fine lacquerware,' she says.
Will regional audiences familiar with the comparable stylisation of Chinese opera feel readily at home with Pagoda? 'Possibly,' Cheong says. 'It is a challenge nevertheless, as one might say that as Asian audiences are more familiar with more stylised forms, they may also be a more critical audience.'
Integrating the small ensemble of chorus, instrumentalists and actors in Pagoda was a triangular effort. It involved Cheong, composer and artistic director Richard Emmert, and the Oshima family from Fukuyama, one of the most active families of expert traditionalists devoted to the promotion of English noh to international audiences. Emmert divides his time between Japan and his native America as the founder of Theatre Nohgaku, a company with members from both sides of the globe dedicated to the same end. His support as a kindred westerner in the creative process was invaluable for Cheong. 'As Rick was also the composer and artistic director, he was able to combine a critique of my work with the ideas that he began to form about the music and the artistic direction,' she says.
Personal circumstances led Cheong into the rarefied world of noh from a diverse roster of professional commitments. Describing herself as 'a writer and a consultant/adviser on a range of activities', she's now involved in a project with celebrated photographer Clive Barda. She is assembling a retrospective exhibition and a film about his 40-year career spent in photographing leading artists from the world of classical music, opera and theatre.
'We hope to bring the exhibition to China and Hong Kong in 2012 under the auspices of the UK Now initiative,' Cheong says. The East-West fraternity has framed her role in facilitating a venture between the mainland and Britain. This explores ways of supporting musical theatre in both countries. It involves a week-long, joint workshop held in April at the Central Academy for Drama in Beijing. Students from the Central Academy, London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the capital's Arts Educational Schools attend.
Has Pagoda helped reinforce Cheong's apparent status as a pioneer? She is modest in reply.
'I think Rick Emmert, Theatre Nohgaku and the Oshima family are the pioneers. They have the mission and vision to take noh and make it more accessible to the world outside of Japan. Like many pioneers they may not be fully appreciated and understood in their own time.
'As with all pioneers, they may not quite know exactly where that journey will ultimately lead them. But we all have the same goal, which is to bring this beautiful and intriguing art form to the attention of people throughout the world.'
Asia Noh Theatre Tour: Takasago & Pagoda, Amphitheatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. July 6, 7.45pm, HK$580. HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288