The central position in Noh Japanese dance has the dancer kneeling, with her bottom resting on her feet, hands palm down on thighs, and head slightly bowed.
“It is torture,” says Carrie Preston.
Your knees begin to throb against the wood floor. Your feet fall asleep, then all feeling seeps out of your legs. Given her years of dancing in toe shoes, Preston is accustomed to being uncomfortable. Still, when she first attempted the kneeling position, called a seiza, she could hold it for only 15 minutes.
Preston, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of English, endured the discomfort as part of her unconventional research for a book on how Noh dance influenced the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats and other modernists at the turn of the 19th century. Like any scholar, Preston spent days combing through archives. Unlike most scholars, she also spent hours learning to be a Noh dancer. Doing so, she says, gave her a deeper understanding of the dance form and its long tradition, which in turn gave her new insights into Yeats’ work, as well as how blending cultures can have a rippling effect.
This is not the first time Preston has danced her way through her research. While completing a doctoral dissertation on Isadora Duncan at Rutgers University, she studied the pioneering choreographer’s techniques with the Isadora Duncan Dance Company, in New York. Preston found the sedentary life of an English graduate student trying, she says, and having danced since she was four, she took time out from the library for the dance studio out of self-preservation.
“I realized in my first year of grad school that I’d better get dancing or I’m not going to survive,” she says. “That’s made my projects different from most studies of literature.”
As Preston, whose various awards include a Peter Paul Professorship, developed her dissertation into the just published book Modernist Solos and the Mythic Pose (Oxford University Press, 2011), she kept coming across references to Japanese dancer Ito Michio, who worked with Yeats on his dance plays. Ito had trained as a modern dancer in Germany and was not trained in Noh, but had been dragged to performances by a relative.
Noh is a highly codified dance form that has changed little since it emerged in the 14th century. The plot is chanted, and performers often wear masks and hold a fan as they act out stories of spirits and ghosts using simple movements. They move stiffly in small, sliding steps, as if moving over ice.
Poet Ezra Pound introduced Noh and Ito Michio to Yeats in 1915, when he was the Irish writer’s secretary. At the time, Yeats was trying to make his plays less realistic and more symbolic, and Noh had the elements he needed. He created the first of his four dance plays, At the Hawk’s Well, using masks, chanting, and mythical characters. Ito performed the central role of the Hawk in the play’s 1916 premiere in London.
Most scholars who have studied Yeats’ dance plays don’t study Noh, Preston says, because Yeats had at best secondhand knowledge of the dance form and borrowed only bits and pieces stylistically. Preston felt otherwise: that she could understand Yeats’ plays only if she studied Noh. And that’s how the BU scholar ended up on her knees.
During summer 2008, Preston attended a three-week intensive workshop at the Noh Training Project, in Bloomsburg, Pa., one of the few places in this country that teach the Japanese dance. The following year, she went to Tokyo, where she dug through the Noh archives at Hosei University and studied dance privately with traditional Noh performer Furukawa Mitsuru. Like any Japanese student, Preston bowed before her teacher at the start of each class and gave the traditional greeting, which translates as “Please be kind to me.”
Preston labored on with the seiza, slowly working her way up to 45 minutes or so. Still, that was only half as long as her teacher, who had trained in Noh since he was a child, could kneel. Years of kneeling had given him such big, callused knots on the top of his feet that he had trouble fitting into shoes, Preston recalls.
Knobby calluses cover Preston’s own toes from her years in point shoes. She says that while her training made it easy to learn the dance steps, everything else about her dance education was opposite to the Noh principles. Most Western dance aims at the sky, with jumps, twirls, and high kicks, but the Noh tradition is deeply rooted to the ground. The performer’s posture is that of an old man, tipped forward, knees bent, a carriage that gave Preston backaches.
She struggled to perform the spare and slow movements with the required reserve. As her teacher explained, only 10 percent of the energy in a movement should show—the rest should be drawn inside. She had to learn to turn inward as a performer. She made her face blank, eliminating any expression of individuality. Her teacher teased her even for tilting her head as she lifted a fan toward her face.
“In ballet, you want to sparkle more than anyone else,” Preston says. “Noh makes all of that impossible. The training form forces you to get rid of any individual interpretation. You learn the steps like your teacher, like your teacher’s teacher.”
By learning to dance Noh, Preston started to understand the ideas and the culture that frames them. She began to see how Yeats not only borrowed stylistic touches from Noh, but tapped broader cultural ideas, even if unintentionally. For example, a sentiment often expressed in Noh dance is that we are not the master of our own fate—that many forces, such as spirits, act upon us. In At the Hawk’s Well, which alludes to the Irish struggle for independence, a warrior is bewitched by a spirit and lured to the battlefield. Yeats supported Irish independence, but was ambivalent about using violence to that end, and the play expresses that concern in symbolic ways, Preston says.
The cultural pollination that began with Yeats continued on, she says. Samuel Beckett was hugely influenced by Yeats’ dance plays. Pound went on to use Noh’s influences in his verse. Traditional Noh itself was ultimately transformed. The canon of Noh plays had remained the same for centuries, but that changed when Ito returned to Japan and presented At the Hawk’s Well there in 1939. It became the very first new Noh play since about the 14th century
Preston is now working on a book about her experiences with Noh. She’s titled it, appropriately, Learning to Kneel. And to that end, she hopes to return to Japan next year to continue her research and learn to sit longer in seiza.
Carrie Preston will deliver a lecture titled Learning to Kneel: Japanese Noh Performance and the Irish National Theater on Thursday, November 10, at 12:30 p.m., at The Castle, 225 Bay State Road. The lecture, part of the Arts, Culture, and Ideas discussion series, which gives alumni an opportunity for discussion with BU faculty members, is open to the public. Tickets are $10 and include lunch.