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Transformation, Transmission, Translation: Japanese Noh in West Coast Arts Practice in San Francisco and Vancouver
  • Judy Halebsky, Department of Literature and Languages, Dominican University of California
This dissertation examines ways that Japanese noh theatre is living in migration as it is translated and transformed by contemporary theatre artists in San Francisco and Vancouver. To the growing body of English scholarship on noh, this work contributes a vocabulary of the traditional practice of noh from a performative perspective and a vocabulary of the creative processes in new employments of noh. In addition to the translation of the spoken language of noh, I explore the translation of aspects of the practice of noh in terms of aesthetics and the language of production. This includes the practice of the philosophy of traditional noh and its formal qualities such as movement, acting, vocal technique, and compositional structure.

Each of three case studies explores different aspects of employments of noh in North America along shared lines of investigation. The first strand, Transformation/ Transmission/ Translation, explores issues of adaptation and transition in noh as it is performed in new works and how they change in new cultural locations. The second strand, Collaboration/ Clash/ Disjuncture, examines the relationships among these groups of artists in terms of how they come together to create new projects. The third strand, Being in the Moment/ Embodiment/ Finding Voice investigates the creative process employed by individual artists in devising new works and the social affects of these projects in the communities where they are staged. 

The first chapter separates the verbal language of noh from the production language to closely examine the points of translation in the practice of noh in North America. Noh's production language is divided into three general groups: compositional structure, aesthetic structure, and physical structure. Compositional structure explains the broad categories of noh plays, the themes of these categories, and the general scene structure of noh plays. The aesthetic structure defines central aesthetic concepts that shape time, space, and acting technique of noh. The physical structure details the noh stage, costumes, masks, props, and staging of noh performances. Subsequent chapters draw on this detailed account of traditional noh to analyze the translations and transformations of noh in North America. 

The first case study examines American dancer and choreographer, June Watanabe's translation of noh into the languages of contemporary North American performance in her company's performance of Noh Project II 'Can't' is 'Night'. Watanabe transforms Zeami's performance philosophy in a way that imbues noh practice with a social significance in the new context of contemporary San Francisco. This is most evident in her creative process of being in the moment that calls for a specific method of inner concentration. I investigate this method through Yuasa Yasuo's writing on the cultivation of the artist and ki energy as well as psychologist Miliary Csikszentmihalyi's work onflow. I give particular attention to the role of the audience in accessing noh and how a new social location changes the cultural knowledge an audience brings to a performance. Watanabe's non-informed performance becomes a transformation of noh as a way for collaborators and audience members to examine value structures, not only as creative work, but also as social and political practice. 

The translation of noh in the third chapter focuses on passing the tradition of noh from teacher to student in a process of transmission at Yuriko Doi's Theatre of Yugen. Doi immigrated from Japan to the United States in 1967 and for more than thirty years she trained American artists in noh and kyogen. Scholars Eric Rath and Maki Morinaga point out many ways that transmission and secret teachings within noh create and control power structures related to authority and income of professional noh performers. My research explores another aspect of transmission: how the aesthetics of an art form are taught, learned, and held in the body. Doi's aesthetic vision crashes noh together with other performance lineages to generate an explosive energy onstage. This requires her actors to join their training in noh with multiple other cultural locations that they inhabit. In this way, Doi's work brings an embodied knowledge of noh to professional performers in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

The final chapter investigates the issues that arise when artists strive to maintain the production language of noh in a new cultural location through Vancouver-based Pangaea Arts' production of The Steveston Noh Project: The Gull. Pangaea Arts brought together a creative team that included Kita school noh instructor Richard Emmert, Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt, professional noh performers, and Canadian actors. Building on translation studies scholarship of Susan Bassnett and Jean-Michel Deprats, I introduce a category of translation called finding voice as seen in Marlatt's script, that expresses the cultural location of the translator rather than obscuring it. The overall success of this production drew on the strengths of Marlatt's sensitive translation process despite a disjuncture in the creative process caused by asking Canadian actors to strive to perform noh in its traditional form. 

Through an investigation of modes of translation these cases studies problematise concepts of national identity and globalization. I argue that the practice of noh in multiple geographic locations is not international, as national borders or a sameness of culture within one country does not define it. Rather, it is interlocal because it lives in specific transformed and translated localities, both geographically and culturally. My research shows that culture is continually created and that noh outside of Japan uses the tools and technology of globalization to create cultural specificity that is different from dominant cultural trends. As noh is practiced in San Francisco and, to a lesser degree, Vancouver, it builds on the historical roots and rich diversity of local culture, creating identities and practices specific to particular geographic and social locations.

  • Communication and the arts,
  • language,
  • Literature,
  • linguistics,
  • Actor Training,
  • British Columbia,
  • California,
  • Daphne Marlatt,
  • Noh,
  • San Francisco,
  • Vancouver
Publication Date
Field of study
Performance Studies
East Asian Studies
Lynette Hunter
Citation Information
Judy Halebsky. "Transformation, Transmission, Translation: Japanese Noh in West Coast Arts Practice in San Francisco and Vancouver" (2009)
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