Monday, September 21, 2009

Turn back, Shulammite! Turn back that we may see you!

If you click here you'll be able to listen to a sample of the music that accompanies the performance while you read this posting.

Tokushima City hosts the Awa Odori Kaikan, a theater where the Awa Odori is performed all year long, with several daily performances. Following the suggestion of the gai-jin at the Tokushima Tourist Information Bureau I decided to attend one.

The audience was quite large and included people of all ages: parents with children, teen-agers, retirees, housewives, middle-aged sarariiman. They were unobtrusively looking at me, the only non Japanese, I was staring at them, surprised by the heterogeneous mixture of individuals in the room. The presence of children and teenagers was particularly interesting: Awa Odori is the pride of Shikoku and these completely westernized youngsters had come there to watch the show and at the end to dance with the members of the company.

Oh, yes, because the English flier I found on the desk in my hotel room did not lie when it said "Let's enjoy to watch and to dance Awa-Odori," and at the end of the show the audience was invited to join in with the dance company. After some ten minutes of intense dance (during which the participating audience took themselves very seriously) a winner was selected. The winner, a local retiree (if I understood him correctly), had rivaled the members of the company in energy and dexterity. The leader of the dance company interviewed him with extreme composure, as if were talking with the Emperor himself, and every now and then he would make sounds (soo des ka? aaaa!) showing that he was taking interest in the gentleman's story, as did the rest of the audience. At the end the winner received a red and white flower chain, some sort of diploma and a standing ovation.

If you read the brochure of the Tokushima Tourist Information Bureau "Three major scholarly hypothesis" exist about the origin of Tokushima Awa Odori:
1. It originates from the dances of the Bon Festival, held in July of the lunar calendar...
2. It derived from Furyu Dance, the dance performances said to be at the origin of the Noh theater...
3. It celebrated the local feudal lord when the Tokushima Castle was completed in 1587...
Whichever one the right hypothesis, the Awa Odori is full of sensual energy, like most dances.

The show lasted almost one hour. First came in the band that positioned itself in a corner and started playing, then the dance begun. The dance itself was very simple and repetitive - women and men advancing in line and then moving in circles and other repetitive geometrical patterns - and it played off the unbalance between the two groups of dancers and the way they presented themselves on the scene, between raw energy and controlled elegance. Let's start from the costumes: the female dancers were completely covered, wore tight, modest dresses, that didn't allow much movement; the male dancers wore loose coats, not fully closed that showed their underwear. The women held their hands up above their heads; the men waved them all around their bodies, marking the space. The women's bearing was very stately, they advanced in small steps, with their arms gently floating in the air; the men strode with their knees bent, and their movements were somewhat sensual, provocative. The men's hand gestures were wide and seemingly out of control, and every so often the fans they were holding would suddenly open and move down just at crotch' height. Each woman's space was clearly defined by their dresses; each man instead was out to expand his own space, get a prey. Like Satyrs they were jumping around the female dancers who kept moving at the same pace, and didn't loose their aplomb despite the frenzy of the male dancers.

All this while the taiko (heavy drums), the high pitched flutes and the shamisen, kept playing the same mesmerizing tune for the entire duration of the show, with almost no variation. As the sound waves moved through the air in the space and reverberated in my wooden bench, different parts of my body perceived different instruments at different times. At some point I felt I was in a trance, probably helped by the repetitive movements of the dancers, the dimmed lights, and the stroboscopic lights on the back screen. This experience itself was worth all the bad pizza.

A brief aside. The following day when I arrived to Tokyo, too late to grab any of the set lunches but still early enough to find lunch somewhere, while scanning the square around the train station, a sign caught my eye: パレルモ (Palermo).

And guess what I had for lunch...

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