Dancing their socks off

Nihon Buyo, Japan's venerable two-toed art form, arrives in London

Japan's oldest traditional dance form, Nihon Buyo, is coming to Britain. "It is a slow and subtle dance combined with vigorous stamping and turning movements," says You-Ri Yamanaka, who is acting as the UK co-ordinator for the Nihon Buyo company's UK debut. The simple stage-set will consist of a Japanese woven cloth; music will be played by 11 musicians and three singers.

Japan's oldest traditional dance form, Nihon Buyo, is coming to Britain. "It is a slow and subtle dance combined with vigorous stamping and turning movements," says You-Ri Yamanaka, who is acting as the UK co-ordinator for the Nihon Buyo company's UK debut. The simple stage-set will consist of a Japanese woven cloth; music will be played by 11 musicians and three singers.

The 13 Nihon Buyo dancers look highly theatrical, sporting chalk-white faces, heavy wigs, two-toed tabi socks and elaborate kimonos. "The cotton socks help the dancers grip when they slide on the wooden floor, and two toes is more graceful than five," Yamanaka says. "In Nihon Buyo, the weight is grounded; they don't really ever jump up as in Western dance. For the solo work Tomoyakko ( The Attendant), a comical dance of a servant who has mislaid his master in a red-light district, the dancer wears bright purple socks and flip-flops.

"In a kimono, you can't see how the dancers use their body, but they are using a lot of muscles and twisting their bodies. They try not to show their hard work directly to the audience as in Western ballet, where you see all the beautiful shapes. We contain our movement and the feeling inside ourselves, and then express it less obviously."

Nihon Buyo is recorded in Japan's oldest history book, Kojiki, completed AD712. But it was not until the early- 17th-century performer Izumo- no-Okuni appeared on the scene with a primitive dance that Nihon Buyo as a performing art really took off. Schools were founded and the different strains of dance passed down.

Nishikawa Senzo X, born in 1928, is the star performer and a national treasure in Japan. He set up the Nihon Buyo Foundation in 1990 and has been teaching and performing for nearly 60 years. He is to dance in the final, 40-minute performance, Kumagai Rensho, the world premiere of a story about a Samurai warrior who must kill his own son to save the emperor's illegitimate son.

"There were 5,000 dances, but now we have only 250," Yamanaka says. "Some of them got lost as they were passed down generations and others were not relevant any more."

Although the basic movements are similar in every work, the different characters in a story are defined by a change in music, choreography, make-up, wig and costume. Senkei is performed by six male dancers bearing fans. "They express their feelings and depict the natural scenery with the fans," says Yamanaka. Shiokumi ( Tide-Gatherer) is danced by a woman in a lavish kimono, who expresses her affection for her lover. A synopsis of the story will be given in English before each dance. "If you know the story, all the movements in the performance will be quite moving."

Nihon Buyo, Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0870 737 7737) 11 & 12 March; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000) 14 March

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