My second Noh performance

On February 4, I had my second Noh performance. Sensei had rented the Noh stage at Iori, where I work, for a day of private recitals by his professional students – a sort of master’s class, in which Sensei gave feedback following each performance. I was invited to perform the kuse shimai of Hagoromo although I am far from being a professional.

The story of Hagoromo is about an angel who descends to earth and while there takes off her feather mantel. A fisherman picks up the mantel and wants to take it home to keep as a treasure of his household, but the angel cries out in distress for she cannot return to the moon where she lives without the mantel.

Thus far the story is one that can be recognized in many world cultures. Usually, the human character keeps the mantel and marries the stranded angel. The angel stays on earth until one day when she finds her mantel’s hiding place and is able to return to heaven, leaving her earthly family behind.

In the Noh play, however, the fisherman is moved by the angel’s tears and hesitantly returns the mantel to see the angel perform a dance of the palace of the moon. I performed that dance.

The performance took place after only three lessons and two weeks of personal practice on the piece. Two days before was a full day traditional arts program at work, which meant I worked from 7:45 am to 0:30 am, or almost two days worth of work in one day. The day before the program, I cleaned up the mess left over from the full day arts program and prepared the stage for the Noh performances the next day. To say the least, I was running on energy reserves I did not know I had.

Nevertheless, the performance went reasonably well. I did not make a mistake. However, at one point in the performance I panicked. What’s next? What’s next? I asked myself and I couldn’t answer. Yet, of course my body remembered the next movement, and the dance continued without a problem. I hadn’t trusted myself enough.

Speaking with my sister Kerstin, it’s a sensation she’s felt as well, playing the cello in concert. It’s the moment when a performer doesn’t trust themselves to have practiced the piece sufficiently. Because I didn’t trust myself, the meaning of the piece was not on my mind and was not communicated in my performance. The only feedback I got from Sensei afterwards was in English,

“See the seaside.”

meaning the seaside on which the angel dances and where the laurel cherry trees are in bloom.

The text of my performance as translated by Royall Tyler is as follows (The indented portions are poems from the classical Japanese canon):

Mists of Spring
veil all the hills:
in the everlasting
moon the laurel tree
surely is in full bloom.

This crown of blossoms, so gay in hue,
declares spring has come. Ah, beautiful!
Although not Heaven, the earth is lovely too.
O sky-coursing breezes, close with your breath
the passageways through the clouds!
Let the angel maiden linger a while
here by the pine wood, to show us spring
touching Mio Cape, the moon so clear
over Kiyomigata, the snows of Fuji –
peerless, all, like this spring dawn:
the waves, wind on the pines, the tranquil shore!
Heaven and earth, why, are they not one?
Simple spirit-fences part Inner from Outer[1]
Shrine, whose Gods’ offspring still rule
our moon-illumined land, source of the sun!

In our Sovereign’s reign,
the celestial feather mantle
rarely descends
to brush the rocks below:
unworn, they endure,

O happy news!
Songs of the East swell from countless throats
as drone-pipes, flutes, harps, and zitherns
resound through the heavens
from the Cloud of Welcome
as the sun sinks, the red of Mount Sumeru;[2]
blue the waves towards Ukishima Moor,
swept by storm winds that scatter blossoms,
like swirling snow, the dancing sleeves
whirl, like clouds, so white, so pure.

[1] The Inner Shrine of Ise is that of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, whose ‘offspring’ are the line of emperors; the Outer Shrine is that of the deity of increase, Toyouke. An influential view in medieval times held that the two shrines were a non-dual pair, here distinguished from one another, but not separated, by the sacred enclosure around the sanctuaries. The presence of sun and moon together evokes a paradisal realm. “Source of the sun’ is hi no moto, equivalent to Nihon, the name of Japan.

[2] The central mountain of the Buddhist cosmos.

From Tyler, Royall. Japanese No Dramas. London: Penguin Classics, 1992.

One thought on “Hagoromo

  1. Oh, so you’re back working at Iori again?

    It must be wonderful to be back in Kyoto, and so surrounded by traditional culture and such, by that arts atmosphere, all the time. I’m sure it’s long hours and tough work, but that aside, I’m envious :) hope all is going well. I’m really enjoying reading all of these updates.

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