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A Modernist Says 'Yes' to Noh

June Watanabe once thought that the Japanese discipline would be too confining. Now she has boldly embraced it.

May 05, 1996|Judy Coburn | Judy Coburn is a Bay Area freelance writer

OAKLAND — "Noh is about what is unseen," says dancer and choreographer June Watanabe, whose "Noh Project" plays at the Japan America Theatre this week. What will actually transpire onstage is Watanabe's audacious mingling of the austere 600-year-old Japanese ritual of Noh, her own contemporary choreography and electroacoustic music by California composer Carl Stone.

Produced jointly by L.A.'s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and San Francisco's Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens, the piece will showcase Watanabe's dancing and the performance of Japanese Noh master Anshin Uchida, with whom Watanabe has studied Noh.

Two more radically opposed traditions--Noh and modern dance, Japanese and American cultures--cannot be imagined. Where oshimai, the dance form of Noh theater, is stately, stylized, unearthly, Western contemporary dance is expansive, exuberant and free-spirited. Noh dance is timeless, ancestral, while contemporary American dance is improvisational, popular in style. In Noh, dance seems to flow organically from an inner spirit; it is as much about motionlessness as movement. In modern dance, meaning usually is evoked by the body's physical movements in temporal space.

Watanabe says that when she was younger, she resisted Japanese traditions, finding as an American and a woman that they were too confining. "My father was born in Japan and I used to dismiss his interest in Noh, his writing of haiku," Watanabe admits. "It wasn't American enough."

But Watanabe, 57, now one of the Bay Area's most respected dancers, is of course the product of just that culture clash.

As a Japanese American, she was interned at age 3 with her family for several years during World War II in a wintry, wind-swept camp in Wyoming. "We never spoke about it at home," Watanabe says, from her East Bay studio. "When I asked my mother questions about it, she just said, 'It can't be helped,' in a very stoic, Japanese way."

After the family returned to Los Angeles, Watanabe grew up in the buttoned down '50s. Her mother sent her off to tap, ballet, acrobatics and baton twirling classes like any Angeleno in love with dance. She went on to major in modern dance at UCLA and spent a summer in New York studying with Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. Instead of pursuing her art, however, she married, and turned to raising three children, and teaching.

"I never really gave up dance in the sense that it was still inside me and I was teaching and going to performances. But I had silenced my own self-expression," she remembers.

But at 40, after a debilitating back injury left her unable to walk, Watanabe's passion for dancing was reborn. Lying in her hospital bed, she realized walking again wouldn't be enough: She determined to dance. "I had three tapes of music in the hospital and I listened to them at night over and over, imagining dancing to them."

It took two years for Watanabe to recover. She began performing and choreographing in 1979, first as a solo artist and then with other dancers. She continues to dance in spite of those injuries and painful arthritis, which hobbles her offstage but is banished in performance.

The roots of "The Noh Project's" multiculturalism can be traced to Watanabe's earlier work. Without being a faithful replication of traditional forms, all her pieces are at least partly Japanese in style or feeling. Movements are often slow, tableau-like, akin to martial arts, yoga or Noh rituals. Postures are tormented, although Watanabe cites medieval Christian influences rather than butoh for these signatures.

The stark visuals in her pieces--a red silk shirt glimpsed under a white robe or an out-stretched arm shuddering like a butterfly wing--reflect a Japanese sense of elegance and refinement. In her 1987 piece "Heian," Watanabe uses the shedding of layers of Japanese kimonos to symbolize a feminist awakening, while juxtaposing delicate female tiptoeing movements with video images of a dynamic male taiko drummer.

In "Night Is the Day of the Moon" (1992), a homage to the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, Watanabe mixes Latin American legend with her Japanese juxtaposition of the colors red and white, and also with the mysterious, distilled style of Noh. But creating contemporary myths with the spiritual weight of the ancient is a difficult project. One reviewer found "Night" to lack the "internal rhythm that must accomplish ritual."

Watanabe's best known work is "E.O. 9066," which refers to the executive order that sent Japanese Americans to internment camps. In less sophisticated hands, this could be a polemic, but its mythic aura carries the piece beyond the didactic. Black-garbed performers in watch caps swim around the tiny, muscled Watanabe, who is dressed as a small girl. Are they guards or internees or even terrorists? A section of barbed wire, like a shoji screen, spins around and across the stage, keeping people out as well as in, freeing as well as imprisoning them.

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