Kanze Noh Theatre—headed by Grand Master Kiyokazu Kanze, a descendent of the founder of Noh—comes to Lincoln Center Festival from July 13 to 17 to perform five Noh plays and two Kyogen (a customary comic interlude). Here’s what you need to know about this storied, classical tradition.
1. Noh combines drama, music, and dance. Leading actors advance the story with their singing, while chanting from the chorus accompanies the dancing and reveals characters’ inner thoughts. Further musical accompaniment comes from four instruments: fue (flute), kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), ōtsuzumi (hip drum), and taiko (stick drum). The dances vary greatly in style and tempo, depending on the character.
2. Noh is the oldest major type of theater still regularly performed today. It originated in the sangaku, a form not unlike the modern-day circus that came to Japan from China in the eighth century. Noh fully developed much later, in the 14th and 15th centuries.
3. The word “Noh” means “skill” or “talent.” The art form’s name reflects the dedicated training and discipline required to perform.
4. It’s a family affair. There are currently five schools—Kanze, Hōshō, Komparu, Kongō, and Kita—that train Noh actors, each built around a family that bears the school’s name. Traditions are passed down from generation to generation—and are strictly guarded.
5. Historically, Noh actors were exclusively male. The practice of separating the sexes later extended to newer forms of Japanese theater, including Kabuki and the Takarazuka Revue. Since the 1940s, however, daughters of established Noh actors have begun to perform professionally.
6. At one time, Noh performances lasted almost all day. Since the Edo Period, they have been shortened to two to three hours on average.
7. Performances unfold on a very specific type of stage. Noh plays were originally performed in open fields. To maintain the feel of performing outdoors, the traditional Noh stage includes a roof, and there are no curtains or proscenium. The stage is made from hinoki (Japanese cyprus) and divided into four distinct areas: hon-butai (main playing area), hashigakari (bridge for entrances and exits), ato-za (seating section for musicians and stage attendants), and jiutai-za (seating section for the chorus).
8. The Noh repertoire includes about 2,000 plays, about 240 of which are still performed today. All plays fall into one of three broad categories: Genzai (realistic plots that unfold in a linear way), Mugen (supernatural tales that often include flashbacks), and Ryōkake (a hybrid of the two).
9. Noh masks are works of art in their own right and considered valuable heirlooms. There are more than 250 kinds of masks currently in use. Masks are carved from wood, painted with natural pigments, and instilled with a variety of emotions, which the actors unleash in performances through movement. (Learn more about Noh masks.)
10. Noh has influenced a number of Western artists. Noh is known or thought to have inspired works by composers Benjamin Britten (Curlew River), Harry Partch (Delusion of the Fury), and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Licht); playwrights Thornton Wilder (Our Town) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot); and choreographer Jerome Robbins (Watermill). An encounter with Noh—in particular its stylized costumes—gave Talking Heads frontman David Byrne the idea to design the oversize business suit that became his signature look.