Notes on an Ishinha workshop in Osaka

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a 3-hour workshop on the performance practice of the Ishinha theatre company. The workshop was led by long-running company actress, Mai Hirano, and four other performers from the group, and it was held in a studio space in the Enocojima Art, Culture and Creative Centre, in Awaza, Osaka.

The event was organized by Naoko Kogo, Associate Professor at Osaka University, as part of her research project titled ドキュメンテーション/アーカイブ (Documentation / Archive), which investigates the relationship between performance remains and the diversity of regional cultural expression.

One of the strands of that project involves the creation of an archive tracing more than 40 years of Ishinha's stage work. Ishinha ceased operations this year following the death of company founder and artistic director, Matusmoto Yukichi, in June 2016. The group's final production, Amahara was performed in the grounds of the Heijo Palace in Nara in October 2016, and revived in October this year (directed by Hirano) for the Weiwuying Arts Festival in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. 

One of the hallmarks of Ishinha's performance style is the use of precise rhythmic vocal chants and body movements set to a 7-beat time structure. Each Ishinha production has a detailed vocal and choreographic score mapping all sound and movement. The group's vocal style is known as "Jan Jan Opera", characterized by the repetition of staccato and onomatopoeic sounds.

On one level, this time structure was a way of organizing the company's famously large casts, enabling over 40 performers to move and speak in unison. On another level, it produced an interesting aesthetic: bodies on stage could quickly move between individual and group expressions. A scene between two actors could become a multitude in a matter of seconds. Mai Hirano alluded to this in the workshop, drawing a parallel with film montage. By blurring the border between the singular and the plural, Matsumoto was able to play with performance conventions, particularly notions of presence and absence, atemporality and historicity, and materiality (bodies embedded in the site) and spectrality (bodies as overlays on the site's topography).

The aim of the workshop was to give participants a sense of the Jan-Jan style. We worked on a short scene from one of the company's iconic plays, "Nostalgia" (first produced in 1993). The scene is titled ジャングルジム (Jungle Gym) and is an intricate vocal and physical depiction of the sounds and life in a tropical forest. It mixed Japanese with words borrowed from the Quechua language. Matsumoto was well known for incorporating cultural objects he encountered on tour overseas.

The workshop began with some simple vocal exercises to relax the body and open up the voice. We moved on to some walking rituals, moving with a low centre of gravity in time to the 7-beat time structure. The Ishinha approach to movement shares similarities with noh theatre in its emphasis on a static upper body, but intensely dynamic lower body.

Once participants we were familiar with the 7-beat time code, we paused to watch the Ishinha cast members perform the scene in its entirety. From there, we broke into groups and began working on the scene piece by piece. Below you can see an excerpt from the score split into 4 columns. Each column has a number of rows, and each row has 7-beats. The columns and sounds are divided up amongst small groups who then work on delivering the score in canon-like form.

By the end of the workshop, we managed to complete a rough version of the scene, combining simple choreography with the vocal score. In the group feedback session, some participants said they felt a deeper appreciation of the skill and intricacy involved in Ishinha's productions. Others commented on the need to preserve this unique performance style. There were also questions on the future of the company. Ishinha's general manager was in attendance and explained that the company has decided to cease activities. This workshop was an excellent opportunity to get one of the last glimpses into a fascinating body of work.