Traditional Noh Showcase (Nov 3)

Noh master Kanji Shimizu wearing a mask.

We’re watching Noh master Shimizu-san get into character, but we don’t know it yet. He’s in a casual black T-shirt and black pants at the start of his Noh showcase, a folded fan in his right hand. “My name is Kanji Shimizu,” he says in Japanese, through Emergency Stairs’ multi-hyphenate administrator, Sim, who’s doubling up as an interpreter. “Thank you – I am in your care.”

Shimizu-san’s Noh showcase is Southernmost’s very first event before the festival speeds ahead tomorrow with full-day rehearsals and masterclasses. It’s a quiet one, attended by about 20 people in the Centre 42 Black Box. Shimizu-san looks both at home and out of place as he moves quietly across the stage, his tabi socks making soft scuffing noises against the wooden flooring. He first came to Singapore for the 2012 Kuo Pao Kun Festival, where he performed in a reinterpretation of Kuo’s The Spirits Play (1998; a meditation on the horrors of war), and here he is wearing a Theatre Practice shirt as a sort of material connection between that visit and today.

Kanji Shimizu and Sim Lin
Kanji Shimizu and Sim Lin

It isn’t the only material connection he’s wearing. Our journey with Shimizu-san in this introduction to Noh is his journey into his performance skin: first his summer linen kimono with a shitagi layer underneath, then his obi (sash), then his hakama (a pair of loose-fitting trousers), then a gorgeous purple outer shawl patterned with shimmery gold leaf, and finally a mask, laid out gently, tenderly, on a jacquard pillow. With every new layer of clothing he gives us a primer on a different aspect of his 700-year-old art form and his relationship with it – a deeply tangible relationship given that many costumes and masks are handed down directly from master to student, which also means that many masks can be hundreds of years old. We all let out a short gasp when he says the beautiful outer shawl he’s wearing – all starched, pressed and pristine – is about 70 to 80 years old.

Shimizu-san demonstrates the gendered Noh performing body – here he is as a man, his shoulders square and his arms pushed away from his torso, his stance wide and confident; here he is as a woman, his feet careful and close, his shoulders gently sloped. He’s comfortable with male roles, but he says performing female parts still makes him anxious because he feels a greater pressure from himself to play them well. When he’s in his full regalia, he says he’ll perform a young female part in a short excerpt of the canonical Noh play Izutsu (The Well Cradle). When he turns back to us, Shimizu-san has disappeared. Instead there’s a female ghost gliding soundlessly across the stage. She tilts her head and I almost see the mask’s mouth turn up in a slight grin, tugging at the slight gap between her lips. But wait, now she’s sad, despairing – did her eyes flutter? She flips her sleeves and drapes one over her head, peering out at us from beneath its shadow. Her fan furls and unfurls. Shimizu-san coats the black box with his deep, honeyed baritone. Everyone seems to be holding their breath.

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Kanji Shimizu holds up a male mask.

“I was only going to perform half of this song,” he tells us, after the applause, “but all of you were watching so intently that I felt I had to perform the entire thing.”

Sim did an incredible job as Shimizu-san’s interpreter; I often find that company administrators end up shouldering way more than their job scope demands of them because they’re always there – and not only when they need to be. She was quick and precise and concise, and it was fascinating to observe their linguistic negotiations on stage whenever she needed clarity from him or vice versa. Xiaoyi acknowledged this in his closing remarks, when he drew a parallel between Sim’s act of translation and our act of decoding a performance lineage so vastly different from our own. This is why he started the festival with a showcase, he said, because the journey to understand a completely different performance language and vocabulary is a cornerstone of the festival.

Last year’s Southernmost took up residence in The Arts House, a politically and historically inflected space with most performances taking place in its severely raked parliamentary chamber that set the audience on opposing sides. Centre 42 has a markedly different identity – it’s a former family residence and a site for a lot of contemporary new work and processual development. I’m still making up my mind about this. At The Arts House, it felt as though the intercultural was the political and you couldn’t help but read plenty of allusions to Singapore’s political history in the work; at Centre 42, the intercultural feels like the independent, the experimental, the work-in-progress. I enjoyed the incongruity of Shimizu-san unravelling a centuries-old art form, one so codified and conserved, one performed for kings and gods, in a tiny upstairs space where I’ve also taken instructions from artificial intelligence (Rei Poh’s Attempts), visited a millennial, YouTubing Emily of Emerald Hill (Emerald Girl, part of Centre 42’s Vault series), and encountered the ghost of Paddy Chew (Loo Zihan’s first iteration of With/Out). We bring our ghosts with us, as Shimizu-san has – not just the ones he’s performing but of all those who’ve worn his masks and clothes before him. So not just the ghosts of ‘tradition’, but ‘spectatorial ghosts’ – I wonder which we might invite in and which we might have to exorcise…