Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gion Odori

Each of the five hanamachi (geisha district) in Kyoto holds an annual odori (dance performance).  The first such performance happened in 1872 as part of a civic effort aimed at showcasing the art and culture of Kyoto after the capital was moved to Tokyo.  Most of the odori take place in the spring around the time of the cherry blossom.  Because the world of the geisha is rather secretive and the geisha houses are essentially private clubs (you need an introduction from an existing client to gain admittance), this is an opportunity for the general public to see them do what they do.

Gion Odori, performed by the Gion Higashi Kabukai (Gion-East Song & Dance Society), is relatively new (1950s) and the only odori that happens in the autumn.  Following on my chance encounter with a maiko, I decided to go.

The Gion Kaikan Theatre has seen better days.  It is not shabby in a quaint eccentric kind of way.  Rather, it appears to have had a poorly executed renovation in the 80s and has not been updated since.  Despite the drab setting the performance was brilliant - graceful, beautiful and perfectly Japanese.

The event began with the optional tea ceremony.  As an absolute beginner eager to understand this mysterious ritual that is so deeply embedded in the Japanese culture, I paid the extra ¥500.  This performance seemed to be a take-out version of what I imagine a real tea ceremony is.  The maiko were immaculate in appearance and gesture, but the attendants were lacking the same charm.  It was a hurry-up experience like eating at a diner where the waitress is trying to turn covers.  This I could have skipped.

I was happy to see the audience was for the most part dressed very smartly, men in jackets and quite a few women in kimonos.  It felt like the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Also, like the opera, the odori crowd was mostly gray-haired.  I was an outsider by not only my nationality, but also my age.

I didn't know what to expect really.  I read a brief synopsis in English beforehand that said the theme of this year's odori was inspired by the paintings found on fusuma (sliding doors) in Kyoto's most famous temples.  There was to be a prologue and six scenes.

The curtain rose on a side stage revealing the musicians and chorus.  I was a little surprised to see that there were no men and no one under 50.  The main curtain rose and four maiko were posing as if in a still-life painting.  Soon they were floating around the stage, their movement fluid, like a leaf caught in a gentle breeze or the current of a stream.  I imagine their training is not only dance, but also perhaps t'ai chi and zazen.

The music and singing are rhythmic and hypnotic.  I can only compare it to Gregorian chant heard in a traditional Catholic mass where the listener is lulled into a spiritual trance.  There is a narrative which is sung both as a chorus and solo, though my extremely limited Japanese means I have to rely on the movement of the dancers to tell the story.  The wonderfully simple background paintings also help, placing the action in each of the four seasons.

The last scene and finale is interesting because there are geiko (the preferred term for Kyoto geisha) that appear that were not in the previous scenes.  Like the grande dames of Broadway, beneath the makeup and elaborate kimonos, one can see their age and somewhat fading beauty.

After the performance I stopped by the cafe Rinken for a drink.  As I sat there reflecting on the evening the maiko from the odori pass by still in costume.  They bow slightly acknowledging the barman.  Yeah...a very special evening in Gion.

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