Although local audiences regularly feast on the lavish, traditional dance-theater of the Grand Kabuki, it's been 30 years since an all-Kabuki dance troupe toured America. And that lapse may have led to misconceptions about Japanese classical dancing.
"The (Japanese) dance world is a whole lot less rigid and, you could even say, a little more daring than the Grand Kabuki," declares George Wago, tour coordinator of the Koryu Kabuki Dance Group, which makes its American debut at the Scottish Rite Auditorium Sunday at 2 p.m.
"It's important to remember that the Grand Kabuki and the classical Japanese dance worlds move as completely different entities, although they have some ties," adds Wago. "Our interpretations of dance dramas would, therefore, be somewhat different from those that appear in (Grand Kabuki) plays.
"And our director, Iwao Ueno, has actually hand-picked the most honored dancers from the best schools in Japan to perform in Los Angeles," Wago emphasizes. All are members of the Traditional Arts Exchange Society of Japan and leading teachers of Kabuki dance.
Does Wago suggest that his company can measure up in style, execution and virtuosity to the Grand Kabuki, the de facto national theater of Japan?
"Oh please, we are not Grand Masters," he answers. "The major difference has to do with our youth and our mixing of male and female roles. First of all, women are denied entrance to the classical Japanese theatrical world. You can imagine that this makes for more rigidity. Meanwhile, women are not only welcome in the dance world, but they become leaders.
"We do have one onnagata, " Wago says, referring to the female impersonators in the Grand Kabuki. "But it's only because he likes it that way. One of our woman dancers does the unthinkable and plays a man as the Wind God. I'd like to think that the Koryu Kabuki Dance Group is close to the original mood that characterized the early days of Kabuki."
Kabuki dancing began around 1603, when a renegade dancer called Okuni led a group of fellow beggar women in erotic-styled, free-form dance along the River Kamo in Kyoto to entertain the common people. "The values in Kabuki dance are not unlike those espoused by the free and anti-elitist works of Isadora Duncan," Wago claims.
But how do these values get translated onto the stage?
"I would say that our dancers move faster and with greater complexity than the Grand Masters because they are younger," Wago answers.
"There is a saying that in Grand Kabuki you have not arrived until your 60s," adds Wago. "And I would say that we are presenting the kinds of fast-paced dances that an older Grand Master would either not take on or would water down to best suit his physical condition."
Wago points to two dance works included in the program that, he says, "require as much youthful energy as mature spirituality." In "Sagi Musume," the spirit of the graceful white heron transforms herself into a maiden while simultaneously stretching her upper body so far downward as to make her back parallel to the floor. And in the comedic "Boshibari," two drunken and boisterous servants dance while tied, back to back, to a pole.
"A Grand Master could perform these parts as well if not better as our younger dancers," adds Wago. "But he would accomplish the task without their exertion. He would transform the needs of the dances' physicality by projecting his spirit."
Wago says that the entire focus of classical dance schools in Japan--which he likens to familial dynasties where aspiring outsiders are frequently "adopted"--is to cultivate the balance of bodily and spiritual strengths, but to not necessarily value one over the other.
"Of course, I will never forget my happy times as a student at the Bando school," Wago rhapsodizes. "I would go to see my Master Mitsogoro dance. His footwork was so delicate, his timing so complex. I think I learned more spiritually by watching him than by dancing.
"But you can not force such spiritual development," Wago warns. "Now our dancers are capable with their emotional qualities but are really at the prime with their physical ones. They are exciting to watch.
"The point is not just to keep the Kabuki dance tradition alive, but to make it vital, to make it live in a different way than the dances do in (Grand) Kabuki theater. It gives you a chance to gaze at classical movement in a completely new way, because you have the virtuosity of the dancers to deal with."