Empire of stillness: the six essential aspects of Japanese Noh

Contemporary artists find power in the formalism, minimalism and stylised theatricality of Noh. Robert Wilson/ Philip Glass collaboration Einstein on the Beach, AAP/ Arts Centre Melbourne, Pomegranate Arts, Lucie Jansch

Theatre of dreams, theatre of play opened this week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), a new exhibit giving a fascinating glimpse into one of Japan’s great theatrical traditions (Noh) through 165 rare costumes, masks, musical instruments and paintings.

I trained in Tokyo for more than three years in Noh and Butoh. Both have had a deep influence on my directing work and teaching. As Head of Acting at NIDA, my training is grounded in Stanislavski yet weaves in elements of these Japanese forms to allow an actor to find physical rigour, contained energy and stillness.

There are six essential aspects of Noh that I took from my time in Japan and incorporate into my teaching at NIDA, which I’ll outline below. Theatre artists worldwide – from Brecht to Brook to Bogart – have been inspired by these dynamic elements of this rich theatrical form.

Noh’s modern influence

Noh has been performed in Japan in an unbroken lineage over the past 600 years, but it has also been hugely influential on a whole host of avant-garde artists.

A range of modern and contemporary playwrights – from W.B. Yeats and Eugene O’Neill to Erik Ehn and Mac Wellman – have been inspired by Noh’s plays which are dense with literary allusions, minimalist poetry and evocative imagery.

The Robert Wilson/ Philip Glass collaboration Einstein on the Beach. The show was 4.5 hours long and audience members were free to come and go as they like. AAP Image/Arts Centre Melbourne, Pomegranate Arts, Lucie Jansch

Directors – from Jacques Lecoq to contemporary legends such as Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Wilson and Tadashi Suzuki – have borrowed techniques from Noh for their stagecraft or to bring a greater rigour to their actors.

All of these artists have found power in the formalism, minimalism and stylised theatricality of Noh to create anti-naturalistic and anti-Stanislavskian work. American theatre director Robert Wilson (whose Einstein on the Beach recently toured to Melbourne) wrote in the 1993 exhibition catalogue of his work, Portrait, Still Life, Landscape:

I hate naturalism. I think to be natural on stage is to lie. That is why I like formalism. In theatre I am much more related to the eastern tradition than to the western one. To Noh or Kabuki or Bunraku more than Tennessee Williams or whatever we have done in the last two or three hundred years in western theatre.

And now to those six essential aspects:

1) Kamae

The first step in learning Noh is to learn kamae, the basic standing position from which everything else follows. It is a position of “readiness”: actors are grounded, centred, energised and ready to do whatever comes next. It is a position of relaxed strength, tension and contained energy.

Directors such as Polish auteur Jerzy Grotowski and American Anne Bogart have all found inspiration in the raw animal energy of the Noh performer and their ability to “simply” stand and do nothing yet also radiate energy.

2) Suri-Ashi

Nō mask Ko-omote, Edo period, 17th century. National Noh Theatre

The second step in learning Noh is to learn suri-ashi or “sliding feet”. The feet are not lifted from step to step, but rather slide across the floor. In fact, Noh is often defined as “the art of walking”. Many modern theatre artists have looked to traditional Asian theatre techniques to revitalise the actors’ physical training.

Contemporary Japanese theatre director Tadashi Suzuki (who borrowed elements of Noh to create his Suzuki method) said:

One reason the modern theatre is so tedious to watch, it seems to me, is because it has no feet.

Robert Wilson similarly said in a 1986 interview:

Maybe the most difficult thing to do is to stand on a stage. How do you stand on a stage? How do you walk on a stage? The Japanese believe that the gods are beneath the floor when you make contact with the floor. But you learn to stand by standing. You learn to walk by walking. There’s no such thing as no movement; there’s always movement.

Both of these artists are rethinking the basic aspects of an actor’s relationship to the stage.

3) Kata

Kyōgen mask Oto, Edo period, 18th century. National Noh Theatre

The third aspect of Noh is the kata, the stylistic movement patterns that form the gestural vocabulary and blocking of the dance. Kata means “stamp”, “pattern” or “mold.” Unlike the mudra hand language in Indian traditional dance, kata do not necessarily have any specific symbolic meaning: they are usually abstract enough to support the emotion of the piece; their meaning is created by their context in the dance.

For an actor inspired by Noh, the goal would not be to imitate the specific kata of Noh, but to find a strong physicality and inner energy that taps into the archetypal gestures of the character they are playing. The actor needs intense concentration and a willingness to find freedom within the limitations of that rigorous gestural vocabulary.

4) Ma/emptiness

Ma is a Japanese concept of “negative space” – but “negative” is not really the right word. It’s more about “pregnant” or “potential” space. It’s about a space, pause, interval or gap that allows the imagination of the viewer to fill something in and complete it.

Examples of negative space in Japanese art can be found in ink-brush paintings or a Zen-rock garden; these have an appreciation for emptiness and minimalism.

Noh theatre is full of ma – in the design, architecture, text, music and performances. My teacher, the theatre director Anne Bogart, would often talk about this sense of ma. She would encourage her actors “to feel the taut line between them and their scene partner” without them being able to look at each other. She would say:

The lines of the actors on stage should never go slack.

5) Jo-ha-kyu

Jo-ha-Kyu is the lifeblood of Noh. It is its rhythm – it literally means “beginning, middle, end” or “slow, fast, faster” but as my Noh teacher Richard Emmert says:

Jo-ha-kyu is really about expansion and contraction of energy.

Many theatre practitioners have drawn inspiration from Noh for its contained and forceful energy.

6) Masks

Nō mask Aka (red) hannya, Edo period, 18th–19th century. National Noh Theatre

Obviously, Noh involves masks and the mask (although a carved object) can portray a myriad of emotions. Roland Barthes, in his brilliant essay Empire of Signs (1983), wrote that in Noh “the face is only: the thing to write”. That is, it is so blank that it is open to our own projections of meanings. The performer in Noh must retain emotion and pull back.

Noh master Zeami said in his classic treatise Style and the Flower, “when you feel ten in your heart, express seven”. This restraint of Noh – which is evident in the masks as well as the acting – has inspired artists from Yeats to Wilson (whose performers all have strong mask-like expressions).

Although the items in the AGNSW exhibition perfectly portray the subtle, austere aesthetics of Noh, it is impossible to fully capture a total theatre form that weaves together a rich tapestry of stylised and minimalist dancing and acting; ethereal chanting and percussive music; richly embroidered costumes and carved masks; and densely poetic scripts.

Lined kariginu nō robe with design of cobblestones and conch shells, Edo period, 19th century. Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan

Noh might come across like a dead art form embalmed by the glass cases of a museum. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and the AGNSW does an outstanding job of making the relevance and impact of Noh clear through a series of public lectures, films, demonstrations and a symposium.

Noh is an art form of stillness and stylisation that is haunting and mesmerising. This exhibit at the AGNSW is a major event that will hopefully inspire new generations of Australian artists with Noh’s poetry, power and theatrical potential.


Theatre of dreams, theatre of play runs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until September 14. Richard Emmert will give a lecture and demonstration, Rhythms of nō: music, chant, dance, on Sunday June 29.

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