Theatre review: Sambaso mines Japan's rich performance traditions

Sambaso, a play with production and costume design by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a renowned Japanese New York-based visual artist. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO/COURTESY OF ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Sambaso, a play with production and costume design by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a renowned Japanese New York-based visual artist. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO/COURTESY OF ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Kyogen master actor Mansai Nomura will be performing Sambaso, a contemporary interpretation of a Japanese ritual dance. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO/COURTESY OF ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Kyogen master actor Mansai Nomura will be performing Sambaso, a contemporary interpretation of a Japanese ritual dance. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO/COURTESY OF ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Mansaku Nomura, 83, kyogen master and Japan national treasure, performs a rousing version of Sambaso, an ancient harvest ritual. -- PHOTO: KONG CHONG YEW
Mansaku Nomura, 83, kyogen master and Japan national treasure, performs a rousing version of Sambaso, an ancient harvest ritual. -- PHOTO: KONG CHONG YEW
Mansaku Nomura, 83, kyogen master and Japan national treasure, performs a rousing version of Sambaso, an ancient harvest ritual. -- PHOTO: KONG CHONG YEW
Mansaku Nomura, 83, kyogen master and Japan national treasure, performs a rousing version of Sambaso, an ancient harvest ritual. -- PHOTO: KONG CHONG YEW

This handsomely mounted doublebill of a comedic play and a ritualistic dance strikes a yin-yang balance as a sampler of Japan's rich performance traditions.

It works somewhat like an haute version of a cultural show, sans explanatory preludes. Both pieces have an uncompromising integrity, and the dignity and rigour of its experienced practitioners are palpable. There is no hint of dilution for a foreign audience, which is both its strength and its weakness. In fact, the post-intermission title piece, Sambaso, forgoes English surtitles completely.

The first half is the more accessible. Boshibari (Tied To A Pole) is a light-hearted Kyogen play centred on two mischievous servants who steal their master's sake while he is out on business. Kyogen is a form of traditional comic theatre performed as interludes to the more serious, austere Noh dramas.

Slapstick, killer lines and good timing are essential to comedy, and Boshibari charmingly embodies all three elements. The dialogue also has a parable-like clarity. Actors perform in controlled movements, and the vowels in their speech are courtly and elongated, showcasing the precision and training of their artform.

The play was especially a vehicle for Mansai Nomura, a film and stage actor who plays a prototypical kyogen hero called Taro Kaja. His charisma is out in full force - with his expressive face and playful physicality - as an unrepentant rogue who finds hilarious ways to drink while being tied to a stick.

Mansai's father, master kyogen actor and national treasure Mansaku Nomura, 83, takes his turn in the second part, Sambaso, an ancient Shinto harvest ritual, often touted as the oldest and most sacred in the Noh repertory.

On one hand, Sambaso feels like an encounter with a hypnotic, otherworldly form that is to be experienced on its own terms. Elemental forces and ancient rites are glimpsed through the mesmerising rhythms of drums and dance. On the other hand, the lack of concession to audiences not familiar with this rich tradition may alienate non-aficionados. My experience vacillates between the two poles.

The dance starts out slowly, as Nomura moves around the stage with a hypnotic sense of control, occasionally stomping his foot to the beat of the drums. It speeds up in the second half, when he dons a black mask, and waves a wand of bells and a fan.

On a purely visual level, the stage pictures were gorgeous, thanks to the set and costume designs by renowned Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who gives the age-old proceedings a contemporary art sheen. Sensuality oozes from the dancers' robes, which are moving sculptures with harmonious patterns, complicated draping, and sleeves that billow like flags.

Above the set, in two long horizontal screens are images from Sugimoto's famous Lightning Fields series, which are illuminated in flashes. At times they resemble complex ginseng roots, other times the nerves of the human body - tapping into a universal vein that transcends cultures and customs.

stlife@sph.com.sg

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