An Apprenticeship in Japanese Nihon Buyo
Text and photos by Sojin Kim, Curator, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Board Member, Alliance for California Traditional Arts
Editor’s Note: Master artist Fujima Kansum and apprentice Melody Takata participated in Round 7 of the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program, conducting an apprenticeship in Japanese Nihon Buyo, or Japanese classical dance.
It is only a few weeks before Christmas, and the last day of classes before the holiday break. The long hallway leading up to the dance studio is humming with activity and energy, each side lined with an assortment of shoes and slippers, knapsacks and bundled street clothes, and festive gift bags guarding presents for the highly regarded instructor Madame Fujima Kansuma.
The date is December 15, 2007; the place, the fourth floor of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center in the heart of Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. It is here that Fujima Kansuma trains her legions of students in Nihon Buyo, Japanese classical dance. The compact studio is a converted office space fitted with a raised wooden dance floor, a mirrored wall, and a sound system. When the students are dancing, there is just enough room in the entryway for a few observing parents and waiting dancers to sit beside Kansuma Sensei, who presides over the class—an elegant and commanding presence—from a chair in the corner. The recipient of a 1987 NEA National Heritage Fellow—the United State’s highest award honoring traditional artists—Fujima Kansuma is recognized internationally as a master dancer and teacher. Working professionally for sixty years, she has trained over 2000 students, 47 of whom have received their natori, the equivalent in the traditional system of Japanese performing arts of completing a formal degree.
For the past year, Melody Takata has made the long drive down from San Francisco to Los Angeles to participate in these classes as part of her participation in the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program. Takata was born and raised in Los Angeles, and she began her instruction with Kansuma Sensei when she was 12 years old. Fifteen years later, Takata moved to San Francisco, where she pursued her love of performing arts through other dance forms, including modern and flamenco, and through rigorous training in kumi daiko, a style of ensemble percussion based around Japanese drums. In 1995, Takata founded her own group, Gen Taiko, with the mission of preserving and presenting the “festival” or matsuri spirit of Japanese culture through traditional Japanese drumming, dancing, and folk song. Based out of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, Takata teaches taiko classes, presents school-site workshops and residencies, and collaborates with artists of different cultural genres to create new work. Over the years, for instance, she has worked with artists specializing in jazz, samba, and classical Cambodian dance.
When Takata decided to pursue her study of Japanese dance and expand her repertoire of pieces, she could have approached local masters and performers. San Fancisco is a city with an impressive and active dance scene and an established Japanese American community. Instead, she decided to request an apprenticeship with Kansuma Sensei. Takata explains that Kansuma brings to her instruction an unusual depth, teaching technique and discussing the meaning of the dances to convey the emotional, historical and cultural nuance and context of each piece.
Fujima Kansma is no ordinary figure. Surmounting a series of challenges and discouragements, her long career reflects extraordinary focus and commitment to her art. Born Sumako Hamaguchi in San Francisco in 1918, she aspired to being a kabuki dancer from a very early age. She began her training in the United States when she was nine years old, but moved to Japan after graduating from high school in order to study with Kikugoro Onoe VI, a famous kabuki dancer. As an American and a young woman, she overcame the skepticism of other students and practitioners of what was then an all-male art form. She immersed herself in the study of Japanese culture and arts, studying the etiquette and techniques of kimono dress, tea ceremony, and ikebana, as well as learning to play such Japanese instruments as the shamisen, nagauta, kiyomoto, gidayu, and taiko. In 1938, she received her natori, professional certification, and was given the professional name of Kansuma.
Upon her return to the states, Kansuma established her first studio in her father’s Los Angeles hotel. When the U.S. entered World War II, she and her family—along with 110,000 other West Coast Japanese Americans—were forced into War Relocation Authority concentration camps. Sent to Rohwer, Arkansas, the eastern most of these 10 camps, Kansuma remarkably continued her dance career—performing and teaching in several of the other camps. Her Rohwer performance in the role of Tange Sazen, a samurai severely disabled in battle, is legendary among those who were in attendance—providing, as it did, a glimpse of hope, perseverance, and beauty during a discouraging time.
When the war ended, Fujima Kansuma returned to Los Angeles and reopened her studio. Over the years, she has taught several generations of students not just a repertoire of dances, but an entire complex of skills and sensitivities, including the etiquette of Japanese traditional arts, the use of stage makeup, and the wearing of kimonos. She also developed a professional troupe, the Fujima Kansuma Kai.
Kansuma Sensei agreed to work with Takata, remembering her former student as a good dancer—one, who because of her tall height, had often danced the male kabuki roles—and, more importantly, as someone who demonstrated a very sincere love and respect for traditional Japanese culture.
Their apprenticeship process involved Takata’s attendance in two to three advanced group classes every other month. In addition to these four-hour sessions, Takata also received one-hour individual lessons. Over the course of their interaction, Kansuma Sensei selected which dances were appropriate for Takata. And as Takata demonstrated competence in them, Kansuma extended permission for her to perform them, further supporting this by loaning her the required costume elements. Already possessing strong fundamental groundwork in Japanese classical dance, Takata’s apprenticeship focused on refining her movements, elaborating the subtleties of the form, and manifesting through movement an “inner expression.” Kansuma also shared her personal stories, perspectives on aesthetics, and instruction in the details of preparing for and performing the dances—this included everything from the consideration of the texture of the collar on the costume worn by a character to the color of the undergarments; from the slight tilt of the head to the way the kimono sleeve is grasped in a certain gesture. It is through attention to such details that dancers come to understand the characters they portray at a deeper level, which in turn enhances their performances.
In this and other Japanese classical art forms, the primary method for learning is referred to as minarai—students observe and follow (watch and learn) the instructor. Miyako Tachibana, Kansuma Sensei’s daughter, an accomplished instructor in her own right, assists her mother in the classes, serving as lead dancer, facilitator, and translator. While Kansuma’s spoken English is perfect, because of her rigorous period of study in Japan, she sometimes prefers to receive questions or comments in Japanese. In classes, Tachibana stands to the front left of the other students—facing Kansuma Sensei. Before running a piece, Kansuma will remind the students of its meaning and setting. For example, for the summer dance “Fune,” literally, “Boat,” she describes a woman sitting in a boat, gazing up in the evening sky to view the fireworks. The music is cued and the students begin to dance. Facing them, Kansuma Sensei—sitting absolutely erect in her chair—models the movements with beautiful, striking precision—and the students try to replicate the shifting direction of her torso, the lowering of her gaze, the extension of her fingers. Ultimately, Tachibana explains, “The students’ hunger, thirst, and desire to take away as much as they can from their lesson and their experience on any given day is up to them.”
Kansuma Sensei understands that Takata, after learning her new repertoire, may later adapt and reinterpret aspects of these traditional pieces. She sees this process as important to preserving and keeping vital the art form she has preserved and shared for over six decades. After all, the smallest gesture, if performed with sincere intent, cultural respect, and community understanding, can convey complex and resounding meaning.
On November 15, 2008, Melody Takata presented a concert to mark the 13th anniversary of Gen Taiko. She invited both artists of traditional and contemporary forms to share the stage and included a composition incorporating one of the dances, “Yutaka no haru,” she had learned with Kansuma Sensei. Takata remarked, “This concert focuses on the future of Japantown as well as gives homage to our culturally rich heritage. I hope our concert will convey this reflection of honesty as we strive for unity, compassion and strength.”