Observing Creation: The Making of Mystical Abyss

On Saturday I attended the first rehearsal for the January 28 Worklights presentation of Mystical Abyss.  The Worklights show will be staged but will not be a full production.  Director Yuriko Doi will select highlights of the play to share with those of us too curious to wait until fall to learn more about the project.

Director Yuriko Doi

I have known Yuriko for several years but never saw her direct until yesterday.  I had heard she had a knee injury, and indeed there she was with her left leg propped on a cushion and a crutch lying beside her, yet she was full of energy, gesticulating as she described the intent of each scene, the graphics to be projected on scrim to complement the live performance, and the style and symbolism of the costumes, which will be ready in May. 

Almost all members of the cast were present.  Notable exceptions were Yugen ensemble member Lluis Valls, who will be the giant turtle, and Noh shite actor Masashi Nomura, of the Kanze school, who will personify both the dark goddess Izanami and the sun goddess Amaterasu.  Masashi Nomura and his father Shiro Nomura are both involved in the production; Masashi will perform on January 28 but had not yet arrived from Japan on Saturday.

The rehearsal began with a read-through of John O’Keefe’s text.  It is rare for verbal elements to be prominent in a Yugen production, but Mystical Abyss is a symphony of words.  As a writer, I especially relished the narrator’s slides between colloquial and more elevated diction, the juxtaposition of ancient, medieval, and modern Japanese, the verbal duets in which English and Mohawk are spoken simultaneously, and the climactic moment in which the same meaning is conveyed in English, Mohawk, Japanese, and Spanish all at once.  Have you ever heard Mohawk spoken?  I had not, and the sound is marvelous, a seductive music.   Another highlight for me was hearing John O’Keefe, as the narrator, voice the transformation of the goddess Izanami from Izanagi’s loving wife to a threatening chthonic deity.  John will appear in the final production of Mystical Abyss but not in the January 28 Worklights show.

Tree of Peace, from a US Forest Service publication

After the read-through, work began in earnest on the dance elements of the production.  Mexican folkloric dancer Jesus Alberto Cortes Hernandez, who will dance the roles of several male gods, choreographed a modern dance before our eyes with his partner Janelle Ayon, who will be Sky Woman.  They then deftly incorporated elements of traditional Iroquois dance proposed by Native American musicians Kenny and Roger Perkins.  The Perkins brothers will sing and play percussion in the production.  Noh flute player Narumi Takizawa and hip drum player Yoshio Ueno will also perform.

During dinner break, I had a chance to interview Yuriko Doi about what she anticipates will be the last major project of her dramatic career. 

OTB (On the Bridgeway):  Yuriko, I can’t help wondering, when I reflect on your distinguished career—as a performer, a teacher, an ambassador for Japanese traditional arts in America, and not least, as a crafter of new world theater that combines classical, traditional, and modern influences—what new regions did you feel you still needed to explore when you conceived the idea of Mystical Abyss?

YD (Yuriko Doi):  In Mystical Abyss, I wanted to express cosmic power very directly, using mythology.  In my Antigone, in the relationship between Antigone and Creon, I already had an image of waves, but in Mystical Abyss, the stories of Izanami and Izanagi, Amaterasu and Susanoo, and Sky Woman and the turtle, there is a more literal concern with the cosmic power of Nature.

OTB:  So you wanted to make a statement on this theme.  How about artistic elements?

YD:  Well, CG animation.  In Crazy Horse and Moon of the Scarlet Plums, I used some images—projections—but I wasn’t satisfied.  They seemed as if they were just extra…

OTB:  Extraneous?

YD:  Yes.  In Mystical Abyss, the animation will be fully integrated with the other ways of storytelling.  Japanese animators Taketo Kobayashi and Koya Takahashi will work with me on this project. (Pause) You know, in Noh, the stage is almost empty, and the audience members create the setting and fill in the story in their imaginations.  This is part of the beauty of Noh, but in this generation people want to see the images in front of them.

OTB:  From your descriptions, Mystical Abyss will be visually complex and exciting for audience members who are highly visual in their orientation–most young people, for example.

YD:  Yes.

Masashi Nomura as Crazy Horse (2001)

OTB:  Yuriko, this isn’t your first production that combines Japanese and Native American elements.  You created Crazy Horse and Moon of the Scarlet Plums before this.  How will Mystical Abyss be like those productions, and how will it be different?

YD:  Some of the same principal actors and musicians are involved–Masashi Nomura, for example.  But both Crazy Horse and Moon of the Scarlet Plums were really Noh plays telling Native American stories.  In this case, of course there will be echoes of Noh, because Masashi and the other Noh performers will bring those with them, but really Mystical Abyss will be a fusion of Japanese, Native American, and modern elements into a work of contemporary dance theater. 

JB (Jubilith Moore):  As soon as people see the first dance, they will know we are doing something different this time.

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