New York

Yasuko Nagamine

Avery Fisher Hall

The first TV babies have given birth to a second generation of TV babies, and within ten years a third generation will be here. Physical mutations have not appeared, but cultural mutations abound. Global communications networks have provided children the world over with intensive exposure to foreign cultures, and they grow up with an unprecedented trans-cultural perspective. The results of this new sensibility are just now beginning to show in the arts—particularly in music. Access to alien visual arts is not new; familiarity with alien theatrical forms (“I Love Lucy” in Indonesia) and alien music (the Beach Boys in Japan) is a recent development. This phenomenon is most evident and interesting in countries that were until relatively recently outside the Western sphere of influence.

Japan is a particularly interesting source of cultural mutations as we are beginning to hear music made by people with a strong native tradition and a thorough familiarity with rock and jazz. Unlikely but successful mergers of musics have resulted, as evidenced by the latest Japanese pop music. But perhaps the most unlikely and successful cultural fusion to come out of Japan recently is the work of Yasuko Nagamine, a dancer who combines traditional Japanese musical theater, particularly Kabuki and Noh, with the traditional Spanish form, flamenco.

Nagamine studied Japanese dance as a child, and at 17 she began to study flamenco. In 1960 she went to Spain to perfect her technique and in 1962 starred at the Corral de la Moleria—one of the few non-Spanish people, and the only Japanese, to do so. Upon her return to Japan Nagamine began to experiment with combinations of Kabuki and flamenco. Women have not performed in the Kabuki theater since shortly after its inception in the 17th century, but by adding elements of flamenco to the traditional style Nagamine became the first great female interpreter of Kabuki. These rigorous, antipodal traditions blend so seamlessly in her productions that the combination itself would seem to be the ancient traditional form of some unknown culture, as though Spaniards and Japanese had been marooned together on an island for a few hundred years.

Nagamine’s performance is a rich marriage of sound and vision. The spectacle of her dance is intensified by costumes, masks, and makeup, and by simple but powerful lighting. The Kabuki orchestra’s accompaniment is similarly elegant—spare yet potent (the samisen’s sound is so penetrating that it can be experienced by many deaf people, and a large contingent of the deaf were present at Nagamine’s debut here). This performance engages and extends the senses, building a most effective art through every means available. It enhances a discrete tradition without compromising it, making an ancient art fresh and renewing its force.

Musume Dojoji (The Woman in the Temple) is based on a Buddhist fable that arrived in Japan with Buddhism in the seventh century. In the fable a young priest who has renounced the world makes a pilgrimage to Kumano Gongen, where he meets a young woman who falls in love with him. He refuses to make love with her, but promises that if his pilgrimage is successful and the Buddha reveals Himself he will return and gratify her wishes. Instead he escapes to the Dojoji temple, where the priests hide him under a huge bell. Discovering his subterfuge the woman swims across the river to the temple and hurls herself against the bell. As her love turns to hatred she bursts into flame, melting the bell and destroying the temple—whereupon she is transformed into a demon, half snake, half dragon, condemned to haunt the earth forever.

Nagamine picks up the fable 400 years (one reincarnation cycle) later. The temple has been rebuilt and a new bell is being installed. The demon girl presents herself at the gates as a temple dancer; she is admitted and confronts the bell inhabited by the spirit of the priest who spurned her. The temple’s priests sense her demonic nature and pray for deliverance; again her lust rises and turns to fury, she is manifest as a demon, and again the heat of her hatred destroys the bell and the temple.

Nagamine wrote the text for Musume Dojoji, and its wonderful music consists of the oldest surviving Kabuki pieces, masterfully played by an ensemble of six samisen players, six percussionists, and one shakuhachi player. (The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute which is exceedingly difficult to master and is capable of producing an extraordinary range of sounds.) Although the music is ancient it is very fresh and lively, and surprisingly rhythmic. Rhythm is crucial to Nagamine’s dance; the powerful battery of her bare feet conducts her accompanists and provides an ebbing and flowing temporal pulse to the performance.

Nagamine’s dancing has the gestural integrity of Kabuki, the subtle narratives of hands and head and posture, but she joins this relatively static art with the dynamics of flamenco and modern dance. She vibrates across the stage in perfect time, her feet pounding but her body moving in a counter time as if detached, sometimes combining delicate variations in demeanor with a rapid, vibrant glide, sometimes matching the fury of her footfall with extraordinary undulations and convulsions of her entire body. Nagamine is a masterful performer. Her eclectic classicism is inspirational, and dramatically shows the possibilities of combining heretofore discrete performance traditions.

Glenn O'Brien