Bugaku: Japanese Imperial Court Dance
Guest post by Jennifer Eberhardt, Special Collections, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) and Ted Shawn (1891-1972), founding figures in the history of American modern dance, embarked on an extensive tour of Asia with their company, the Denishawn Dancers, in 1925-1926. Making major stops in India, China, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the company’s performances were some of the earliest presentations of American dance in Asia. During their travels, St. Denis and Shawn, well-known for adapting non-Western elements and themes into their choreography, capitalized on the opportunity to observe traditional Asian dance practices whenever possible, balancing company obligations with site visits, research interviews, and demonstrations with historians and practitioners throughout their journey. While abroad, Shawn was contracted by the New York-based journal The Dance Magazine (1924-1931) to write a series of articles recounting their experiences on tour, which he published collectively in 1929 under the title Gods Who Dance.
The 1925-1926 Denishawn tour was bookended with two stays in Japan, at both the beginning and end of their voyage. During their initial visit to Tokyo, St. Denis and Shawn were specially invited to the Japanese imperial household to study historical costumes and paintings documenting the customs and development of the court dance tradition of bugaku. One of the oldest continually practiced dance forms in the world, the dances that would form the basis of the bugaku tradition were initially imported to Japan by the imperial court during the 7th and 8th centuries, primarily from Korea and China. Alongside the closely-allied music practice of gagaku, the establishment of the bugaku tradition in during the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods reflected a growing interest in cultural and religious practices outside Japan and became part of the Japanese imperial court’s broadening sense of intercultural exchange and political prominence. Cultivated as a self-conscious demonstration of the court’s cosmopolitanism and refinement, bugaku became a highly stylized dance form, with a slow and measured choreographic style. For much of its history, bugaku remained an exclusive and privileged experience, performed only at the Japanese imperial court and, very rarely, as part of religious rituals at temples or shrines.
St. Denis and Shawn were thoroughly captivated by the visual representations and bugaku artifacts they encountered during their consultations at the imperial household. In his published accounts, Shawn describes one of the costumes they viewed in detail:
The most gorgeously costumed dance of all the court dances is the one that represents warriors celebrating a victory after the establishment of peace. The helmets are of solid gold, brilliantly decorated with cloisonné, and with cut rock-crystal, inset like jewels. Over the costume of red and gold brocade is worn a suit of simulated armor in the old Japanese style, with epaulets of red and gold lacquered wood made in the shape of dragons’ heads. There is a wooden bow carved like a fantastic fish, a quiver with six solid gold arrows, and long spears which lie on the ground, during the dance. The sheaths of the swords are made of lacquer and gold and are set with semi-precious jewels. It is the last word in splendor (41-42).
The costume Shawn discusses in this passage is for the bugaku dance taiheiraku. Bugaku dances are classified into two types, dances of the left (sahō no mai or samai) and dances of the right (uhō samai no mai or umai). Dances of the left, such as taiheiraku, are mainly Chinese or Indian in origin and are performed to tōgaku, a Japanese adaptation of Chinese musical styles prevalent during the Tang Dynasty (618–907); costumes for dances of the left are primarily red. Dances of the right are accompanied by komagaku, music derived from Korean traditions, and feature costumes that are predominantly green or blue. In addition to these two basic divisions, bugaku dances are also categorized according to their general character, including warrior dances (bu no mai), running dances (hashiri mai), quiet dances (bun no mai, also called civil or literary dances), and dances for children (dōbu). In keeping with the style’s overall restraint and balance, dances of the left and right are traditionally performed in alternation, with independent music ensembles accompanying each type.
Though the historical bugaku repertoire included hundreds of dances, modern bugaku consists of approximately fifty; even fewer are regularly performed. Most dances in the contemporary repertoire are thematic, often abstractly based on historical or religious narratives and folklore. The majority of bugaku dances are choreographed for four dancers, though dances for one or two can be used to mark the beginning and other structurally significant moments of a performance. In general, dancers’ movements are structured in symmetrical, parallel patterns, and in traditional presentations the audience is seated on two or more sides of a central, raised, green performance platform.
Bugaku was only performed publicly in Japan after WWII; at the time of the Denishawn tour, performances remained restricted to the imperial court. Nonetheless, according to Shawn’s written memoir, he and St. Denis were purportedly able to view a rare, semiannual performance of two bugaku dances at court during their second visit to Tokyo on the return leg of their journey. At that time, in recognition of their appreciation of the bugaku tradition, St. Denis and Shawn were given two large, handmade volumes of colored illustrations of bugaku costumes, constructed with traditional Japanese accordion-fold bindings and silk covers. In Gods Who Dance, Shawn recalls:
Because of our enthusiasm and the quality of our interest in the books of costume design, Mr. Yamamoto of the Imperial Theatre secured permission to have an artist go into the Music Department of the Imperial Household and make a copy of two entire volumes of the Bugaku costume designs. This laborious task was finished just before our return season at the Imperial Theatre and the paintings were bound in a rich brocade and presented to us. This is the only copy in existence of the originals in the Imperial Household and we feel that these are such treasures that they should be shared in some manner, such as an art collection making a tour of the Universities. It is my hope that someday we shall be able to bring an adaptation of this gorgeous and wonderful style of dance to American audiences (42-43).
St. Denis and Shawn eventually gifted these two volumes to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, likely sometime around 1951. They are currently included in a case exhibition of materials from the Dance Division related to bugaku located on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts, alongside a two-volume set of additional color illustrations of bugaku costumes, Bugaku zu, published in 1823, and black-and-white photographs documenting select bugaku performances in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. Also on display is a 1730 volume of Japanese woodblock prints, Ehon Tsūhōshi, which includes illustrations of the costumes for Kochō and Karyobin, childrens’ dances of the right and left; this volume was given to the Dance Division by Lincoln Kirstein, who arranged the first performances of bugaku outside Japan arranged behalf of the New York City Ballet in the late 1950s.
Researchers interested in materials on bugaku and related resources may locate them in the Library’s online catalog by completing a subject search using the terms “Bugaku” or “Dance —Japan,” or by emailing email@example.com. For an account of the experience of examining St. Denis and Shawn’s bugaku volumes and other special collections materials held by the Dance Division from a researcher’s perspective, see writer and dancer Joseph Houseal’s post, “Treasure Hunting at the Library for Performing Arts.”