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The performance by Geimaru-za Nihon Buyo Troupe presented by Duke Performances in Reynolds Theater was my first experience with live kabuki-style theatre, and it was both fascinating and instructive. This was not classical kabuki, but the freer nihon buyo concept of musical dance theatre – updated by this troupe of younger artists. The founders of Geimaru-za are all graduates of Japan's national art school, Tokyo University of the Arts. The company was founded in 2006; there are probably even younger artists hot on their heels with more new ideas for this panoply of forms that has been evolving for centuries, even while its earlier forms have been carefully preserved.
The first of the program's three sections opened with Ayatsuri Sanbaso (Puppet Sanbaso), for two dancers supported by musicians on platforms behind a narrow where the Koken (stagehand) and Sanbaso the marionette dance. Apparently, this is a joyful, grateful dance (it certainly struck me that way) that originated in an ancient Noh play and has subsequently been adapted for other forms. This version dates to 1853, and scene after scene looked exactly like contemporary prints of Japanese theatricals, from the stage arrangement, to the costuming and make-up, to the various positions held.
The next dance, however, began with a charming projected animated video with English text, giving us the story of Oshukubai (The Nightingale in the Plum Tree) before the gorgeously costumed tree, crow and nightingale appear on stage. This piece was inspired by a children's story written in 1948, and would probably be understandable around the world without prior explanation, although the story makes it better. The characteristic behaviors of the crow were hilariously portrayed by Hanayagi Genkurou.
A musical interlude followed the intermission. An elegant shamisen duo opened with Nagare (Flow), a roaring quartet of drums and flute closed with Shishi (Lion), and in the middle was a fine flute solo. Written and performed by Tosha Suiho, Toki (Japanese Crested Ibis) was just completed this year. A remembrance of a now-extinct bird that was once a grand symbol of Japan, its shimmering flights of beauty and air-lofted power were underlaid with a deep melancholy.
The third act was a completely delightful version of the four seasons, or Shunkashuto, in dance and music. Spring came from a kabuki play of 1755; Summer was a superbly strange masked dance presented just as it was, they say, at its premiere in 1832. Autumn was a folk dance from northern Japan, with funny masks and a rowdy tone in both the movement and the marvelous percussion. Winter made a most enchanting, luminous, farewell in Geimaru-za's Shirasagi-sho, their new arrangement of the classical dance Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden) from 1762. Female dancers with silver fans glided on a frozen lake, fluttering and flying as the snow came. It was mesmerizing – music, dance, costumes, lights – and as heart-lifting as watching great birds take flight.
This was Geimaru-za's first North American tour: Toronto, New York, and Durham – another Duke Performances booking feat that one hopes will be repeated.