Watching a Geisha Dance: Choreography as Historical Source
A Show-and-Tell Event with
MARIKO OKADA, Toyota Professor in Residence, CJS
When a particular dance work has been staged successively over a long period of time, how is the choreography actually passed down to new generations of dancers? Of all the various elements of dance—plot, music, costume—choreography is the most indeterminate and the most difficult to document, leaving very few traces in the historical record.
In the last decade, the Museum of Albert Kahn in France made public color photographs and moving pictures collected by French banker and philanthropist, Kahn. These are the artifacts of his ambitious project to create an “Archive of the Planet,” a visual record “of and for the peoples of the world.” In my explorations of this rare visual archive, I identified one of the films as a record of a geisha dance performance in Kyoto in 1912. The film was shot by photographer Stephane Passet, one of Kahn’s emissaries sent out on an Asian tour to photograph and film in color.
The Kyoto-style geisha dance that Passet captured on camera is distinctive in its choreography. What was most surprising to me was that the dance movements in this one hundred-year-old film were virtually identical to those of the same dance performed today. This raises questions about the meaning of tradition and its physical expression in theater. If it is true that the choreography has remained unchanged for a hundred years, can we assume this particular dance has existed in the exact same form since its inception? Do the physical movements of traditional dance reveal its entire history? In this lecture-demonstration, I will focus on the elements of choreography to offer new perspectives on the history of Japanese dance.