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KABUKI STARS TAKE CENTRE STAGE IN PARIS

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 MAY 2007—Kabuki is a popular form of Japanese dance theatre dating back to the early 17th century, which, contrary to the more refined and aristocratic noh theatre, is very accessible to the general public. The very word itself, "ka" meaning song, "bu" meaning dance, and "ki" acting ability, tells you what it's about. Traditional kabuki is a highly codified combination of music, movement, dance and drama, and an enthusiastic audience was treated to all four in abundance in a remarkable and delightful programme by the Ichikawa family on their first visit to the Palais Garnier in March. They brought with them two magnificent dramas created in 1840 and 1887 respectively.

The first piece, Kanjincho, is set against an epic military background and is more theatre than dance. It tells the story of Yoshitsune, one of Japan's most popular heroes, who is accused of treason by his elder brother, Yoritomo, the reigning Lord. Yoshitsune, dressed as a lowly porter and accompanied by his faithful retainers disguised as monks are ostensibly travelling to the temple of Nara when they are confronted by the local commander and his guards as they try to cross a roadblock.


Kabuki: Kanjincho
Ichikawa Family:
Photo: Sebastien Mathe 

The faces of the guards are impassive; only their voices change expression as they work out a plan to trap the fugitives. The play is performed in a highly stylised manner where most of the "action" is dominated by super-star Ichikawa Danjuro X11, head of the Ichikawa dynasty of performers, clad in a magnificent costume of black, white, gold and silver with his face painted in extravagant make-up. He claimed the stage as the conniving spokesman for Yoshitsune. What was particularly striking in this essentially static piece were the flamboyant gestures of the actors coupled with their arrogant, bombastic speeches, both specialities of the Ichikawa family.


Kabuki: Kanjincho
Ichikawa Family:
Photo: Sebastien Mathe 

Momijigari, a more sophisticated play, where dance dominates, was the more visually spectacular piece. The décor of maple trees in the Fall, with their multi-coloured red, purple, orange and gold leaves, with the sea and scattered islands in the distant background was breathtaking. Flowers of purple, yellow, pink and white grew at the forefront of the stage and the whole scene was bathed in a glowing, luminous light. The musicians and singers were placed along the back and sides of the stage, leaving the gorgeously attired actors and dancers centre stage in their exquisitely embroidered kimonos. The women in particular were amazing.


Kabuki: Momijigari
Ichikawa Family:
Photo: Sebastien Mathe 

The handsome male dancer, thirty year old Ichikawa Ebizo X1, eldest son and heir to Danjuro X11, is an important star in Japan who specialises in female characters. He radiated at the centre of the piece in the dual role of the heartless but beautiful princess Sarashina doubled with that of the demon of Mount Togakushi. Stunning in a red kimono decorated with flying birds and stars in green, turquoise and shades of pink and orange, and wearing a brilliant diamond tiara atop an intricate, elaborately fashioned hair-do, she and her ladies meet up with the general Koremochi at the Mount Togakushi. They drink saké while being entertained by the ladies dancing, and the noble general, captivated and more than a little inebriated, sleeps under the spell of the Princess, who is no other than the Demon of the mountain. The sky darkens and the forest trembles as the Japanese God of war comes to warn Koremochi just in time for him to fight and overcome the evil spirit.

Since 1629 women have been banned from taking part in kabuki performances. They have been replaced by male dancers, known as onnagata, who do not seek to imitate women but who have been trained from early childhood in the art of idealising women by their way of walking, by their speech and by their each and every gesture. They have had to learn how to walk with a piece of paper between their knees, for example, and to lower their shoulders submissively and turn their feet inwards in the manner of geishas. The illusion has been helped along by wearing over-large sleeves in their kimonos to make them seem more frail, by their extravagant hair-styles, and most of all, by their delicate make-up. Their faces are painted white, their eyes beautifully out-lined in black, and red rose-bud mouths have been painted on with extreme care.


Kabuki: Momijigari
Ichikawa Family:
Photo: Sebastien Mathe 

The women who took part in Momijigari were very pretty. If all eyes followed the slender dancing figure of mademoiselle Chrysanthemum, a vision under the flowering trees with her white powdered face and pale gold kimono embroidered in greens, rust and gold, then another attendant of Sarashino, several generations older, attracted just as much attention with her gentle feminity. Onnagata is for life. Unlike the career of Western ballerinas, their career does not stop in their early forties, but continues indefinitely.

And finally, inserted between these two plays was a "kojo", a short ceremony in which the actors addressed the audience directly. Their message was that they all felt it was the greatest possible joy and honour for them to be at the historic Palais Garnier; "Where everyone wants to be." With humour and with a great deal of charm, Danjuro Ichikawa followed by some of the more senior members of his family spoke to their audience in French, drawing the parallel between their own art and the 400 years of history of the French company.

Last but far from least was the show outside the amphitheatre, for most of Paris' Japanese population it seemed, had come crowding in to see their heroes. Wearing their beautiful traditional dress. And how drab and dowdy we Frenchwomen felt in our "fashionable" black and greys against these myriad butterfly figures of every colour and shade imaginable. Dainty, fragile, and so exquisitely feminine, the Japanese women stole the show on both sides of the curtain.

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at Culturekiosque.com

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