Theatre of dreams, theatre of play

Nō and kyōgen in Japan

The most ancient performing art tradition of a country which boasts the most islands within its national boundary are the subject of the dazzling current exhibition at the New South Wales Art Gallery.

Spanning over 600 years, nō (meaning ‘skill’ or ‘talent’, also spelled ‘noh’) is one of the world’s oldest theatre forms, with roots going back to dances performed at agricultural festivals and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines on special occasions. In the 14th century the practice developed to become a significant element of the elite culture as it became popular among official circles.

Nō combines drama, music and dance elements, and is performed on a highly abstracted stage. A typical program takes in several plays – symbolic dramas with a feeling best expressed through the word yūgen ('elegant, refined, and elusive beauty’). These are interspersed by kyōgen skits – spoken drama based on laughter and comedy.

Traditionally, nō and kyōgen performers were exclusively male, so costumes and masks were created to help identify the characters. Created by master artisans with patronage from the military nobility, no cost or effort was spared in their production.

There are over 200 types of nō masks and about 20 different types of kyōgen masks known today. The former include male and female characters, from old men to demons. Most of the latter depict non-human characters such as deities, ghosts and the spirits of animals and plants.

The exhibition marks the first time that many of the items on display have been seen outside of Japan.

You can find out more about the exhibition here, or click on the thumbnails below to view the images full size.