Every time I encounter Okinawan culture I fall in love a little bit more, even though I’ve never been there. Last Friday I had the chance to go along to a free event at the Lilian Baylis Studio next to Sadler’s Wells – Ship of the Ryukyu present YUGAFU – Ryukyuan Dance.
In case you don’t know, Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県) (the collective name for Japan’s southernmost islands) was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球王国 / Ryukyu Ōkoku) until 1879. The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent kingdom which ruled most of the Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島 / Ryukyu-shoto) from the 15th century to the 19th century. Okinawa is known for beautiful beaches, scuba diving, and a very distinct culture which is quite different from mainland Japan.
The evening’s programme consisted of music and unique dances which were originally created by males of the samurai class. In keeping with tradition, the dances were performed by only young male dancers, even though some of the characters were female. Behind the dancers were a row of musicians, who I greatly admired for their ability to sit in the seiza (正座) position throughout the entire performance. Their were five dancers and seven musicians. The musicians played sanshin (三線) (a 3-stringed instrument a bit like a banjo), koto (箏) (a stringed instrument which is the national instrument of Japan), flute, kokyu (胡弓) (a Chinese fiddle), and drums. The musicians and dancers also sang.
Photography was not allowed during the event, so I’m afraid you will have to take my word for it when I say the musicians were fascinating to watch and the costumes were incredible. Here are a few images from the Ryukyu Dance website:
I didn’t really know what to expect but, having been to London’s Okinawa Day before, I thought I might be in for something similar. There were certain aspects which I found familiar, such as the music, but the dance was very new for me. The music all sounds quite samey to my untrained ear, but I find it a pleasant sound, and noticed I was humming it all the way home. The singing, on the other hand, was a little bit challenging and I could see some members of the audience becoming quite restless. When I say ‘singing’, there was a distinct musicality to it, but it was a bit more like chanting than tuneful singing.
I was very impressed with the dance, and with the way in which stories were told simply through movements. It was helpful that before the pieces there were short voice-overs in English explaining what was coming up, and I found that I was able to follow the stories the dancers were portraying very well. The last piece in particular was brilliant, and very funny. The other pieces had been a little slow, but the final piece was more upbeat and told the humourous story of the attraction between a young man and woman. I wish I could have taken notes during the voice-overs, but it was a bit too dark and cramped in the theatre to get my notebook out. Hopefully I’ll find another chance to explore Ryukyuan dance in the future!
Ship of the Ryukyu is a collective of singers and dancers led by seven young directors from Okinawa. The company was formed to help to develop an interest in Okinawa’s vast heritage and to introduce the world to Okinawa’s wonderful culture.
The event was sponsored by Okinawa Prefecture, and all visitors were given an enticing colour brochure advertising Okinawa as a holiday destination. I have to say, on a freezing cold March evening in England, it looks mighty enticing! Find out more about visiting Okinawa here.