Like a museum tour guide, a sensible-sounding English woman provides an edifying commentary for this showcase for Nihon Buyo, a traditional Japanese dance style established in the 18th and 19th centuries. For those of us new to the form, that information is invaluable, especially as the dance often illustrates the words of the accompanying songs.
But the opening Senkei (fan dance) is a display of the formal aspect of Nihon Buyo, with no lyrics to interpret – which also makes it the easiest to appreciate. In plain but elegant kimonos, six men glide and dip as effortlessly as a school of fish, their fans folding and twitching like fins. It begins meditatively and builds to a sunnier finish, maintaining an unforced sense of harmony, precision and proportion.
Then follow traditional dramatic scenes. In Shiokumi, soloist Nishikawa Yuko depicts a ghost who recounts a past love affair. Her spare, minimal gestures and impassive white painted face contrast with her opulently embroidered garments. She removes the outer swathes to reveal yet more sumptuous colours beneath. Tomoyakko, a solo by Nishikawa Minosuke, portrays a samurai servant’s night on the town. It’s more expansive – with wide-legged sumo squats and a few comic pratfalls – but no less stylised. Both soloists are assisted with their dress and props by veiled stage hands who scuttle from the wings like tennis ballboys.
Kumagai Rensho, the tale of a samurai who sacrifices his own son, shows the creative or interpretive aspect of Nihon Buyo. Nishikawa Senzo plays the central role with a sure instinct for its human tragedy. But though the sparse set and naturalistic acting impart a modern feel, this piece also relies most on the sung narration, which makes for a tantalising and ultimately frustrating experience.