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The Noh Theater and its Gestures. Guerino Mazzola U & ETH Zürich Internet Institute for Music Science. Kunio Komparu The Noh Theater—Principles and Perspectives Weatherhill/Tankosha, Tokyo & New York 1983.

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The Noh Theaterand its Gestures

Guerino Mazzola

U & ETH Zürich

Internet Institute for Music Science


Kunio Komparu

The Noh Theater—Principles and Perspectives

Weatherhill/Tankosha, Tokyo & New York 1983


Muromachi period 1336-1568

  • Nohgaku = Noh + Kyogen = accomplished entertainment
  • Vocal music = utai
  • Instrumental music = hayashi (1 flute + 3 drums)
  • Acting technique = kata (dance poses + action)
  • Dance elements = mai (dance + utai + hayashi)
  • Fine arts, crafts = masks, robes, instruments
  • Architecture = Noh stage
  • Time = mode of production
  • Space = unified space (= stage + public)

Art of time-space continuum, perfection —> stylization/formalization

  • Comparable to avant-garde music including improvisation and chance
  • Utai-bon (= chant book) contains script, score, rules for performance => conductor superfluous
  • Architectural space concept is - modular - universal/multi-purpose
  • Negative space = ma = stillness/emptyness before and after performance
  • Positive space = stage properties and dramatic activities
  • These spaces are connected by time, no curtain!

Types of time and space:

  • Condensed time
  • Slippage of time
  • Vanishing time
  • Reversed time
  • Split time
  • Shift of space
  • Oscillating space
  • Floating space
  • Expanding and contracting space
  • Space that brings the audience „onstage“

Noh = experience, responsibility, not appreciation!

Like tea ceremony,

unique in lifetime,

not reproducible!

There are no Noh stars...

„Never forget the beginner‘s mind!“

A Noh program lasts whole day 5 Noh plays + Kyogen are performed


There are five Noh principles:

Sancticity & magic

Stages of beauty

Actor and audience

Aesthetic of discord

Five element theory


1. Sancticity & magic

Sancticity of space: Space of „sacred dialog with the gods“

Magic in technique (from mimes): Acrobatics, mystical forces will power, autosuggestion: Merging self and other mask + mirror

„...the mind‘s eye is opened and the soul grasped; the true Noh, hithertoo invisible, comes alive...“


2. Three stages of beauty

  • Hana = appearant beauty: blossom/flower
  • Yugen = invisible beauty: performed sublimity
  • Rojaku(old quiet) = quiet beauty

3. Actor and audience

  • Self and other, active fusion

1.Curtain 2.Third Pine 3.Bridge 4.Second Pine 5.First Pine 6.Shite pillar 7.Eye-fixing pillar 8.Flute pillar 9.Waki pillar 10.Cut-through door 11.Back panel 12.Main Stage 13.Moat Steps 14.Pebble Moat 15.Side Stage 16.Rear Stage 17.Mirror Room


4. Aesthetic of discord

  • Odd number important in Japan; against symmetry
  • Center of shape ≠ center of space:

Dynamic balance

Jo-Ha-Kyu = most important aesthetic principle:

Jo = „beginning“ position = spatial element

Ha = „break/ruin“ = destruction, disorder

Kyu = „rapid“ speed, time element

Production principle for Noh program:

Everything is dominated by Jo-Ha-Kyu.


5. Five element theory(odd number!)

Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water

~ 5 breaths, 5 tones, 5 organs, etc.

Five Noh play categories:god, warrior, woman, madness, demon

Have two time categories: present time dream time

=> 10 categories in plays: two time categories x five play categories








Clothes &








Every Noh play is one cross section of the life of one person, the shite.

The shite has an appearance (demon, etc.)and subject = one of the five elements

The waki is a

kind of co-sub-ject and mirrorperson to the shite.


Why are gestures dominant in Noh?

  • Have three languages of human expression:
  • Vocal
  • Facial
  • Gestural
  • Facial is impossible because of masks
  • Vocal is ambiguous in Japanese, bad for expression of will, reserved to lyrical evocation
  • Noh is dance drama, no opera or ballet
  • All characters are choreographed
  • All movements consist of units of movement = kata (patterns)
  • chant unit = phrase (12-syllabe line) music unit = melodic + rhythmic units space unit = za (hierarchy of places!)

Everything is



Noh gestures are reduced to unit patterns (kata) and made symbolic.

  • This enables much richer communicationto audience than by eveyday gestures.
  • Very important for us:
  • „Shite waves a web of fantasy in curves.“
  • „Waki draws reality in straight lines.“

Classification of katas

  • Three types:
  • Realistic, e.g., hold a book in your hand, jump into bell
  • Symbolic, e.g., weep = hand to face and back
  • Abstract, e.g., zig-zag = beginning of end of many dances, or extended fan
  • Three categories:
  • Pure dance
  • Descriptive
  • Dramatic

Have the gliding walk,

transports characters horizontally through space —> white socks!

One could understand Noh by observing feet!

Interesting performanceonly in upperhalf of body!


katachi = more than kata:

chi = deity, i.e., katachi = form/shape = exterior form of kata + characteristic usage (mask, clothes, character)

Dance = „text“ built from kata-units by enchaînment plus syntactical rules

mai = performed kata „text“ plus music

Classification of mai according to elements (music, dance etc.)

Noh = enchaînment of 100 types of shodan segments basically 4 types: spoken/chant/instrumental/silence