I was please to attend a performance by Hanayagi Mitsugi Kai at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music spring convocation on March 25, 2005. Since it is a music school (and the event was mandatory for students), some of the presentations were a bit pedantic. However, the dances, accompanied by shamisen, taiko and fue, were beyond reproach. Sagimusume 鷺娘, the Heron Maiden, was particularly affecting.
Sagimusume is the story of a heron that falls in love with a human, and so transforms herself into a girl. This transgression must eventually be punished, and the heron descends into hell. Wada-san, the troupe’s interpreter, described the dance’s theme as "ignorance at the base of suffering." However, I was reminded of another theme: the Buddhist belief that desire is the cause of suffering. The heron’s desire is fulfilled, but leads to her downfall. For most humans, though, it is unfulfilled desire that leads to misery.
Dressed simply in white kimono with a black obi featuring an embroidered feather motif, the dancer conveyed the heron’s image through simple movement and posture. At the dance’s outset, the dancer wears a white hood, somewhat reminiscent of the 角隠しtsunokakushi a Japanese bride wears. By simply removing the hood, the heron is transformed into a girl.
Throughout the dance, just as important as movement is the dancer’s stillness. Similarly, not only playing, but also silence are important elements of the accompanying music. That is not to say that all is stillness – when heron, transformed into a girl, descends into hell, the twirling movement sends obi and sleeves whirling in a manner that is quite fantastic.
Other elements of the Hanayagi Mitsugi Kai presentation included a virtuoso performance on shamisen, and a contemporary piece for shamisen and taiko titled Shamisen Concerto. Despite the player’s great skill, and the excitement created by their vigorous playing, these pieces did not affect me nearly as much as the dances or the music that accompanied them. Just as a candle appears all the brighter in a dark room, the virtuoso playing was enhanced in a simple, serene setting.