A scene from Takaaki Shigenobu's Dancing Monk Ippen, directed by Hiroaki Doi,
at the Sheen Center as part of the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.
Dancing Monk Ippen is a modern adaptation of a part of Japanese history from
the 13th century, when there was much civil war and killing even
among families. In one family, the Kono family, in which two brothers were on
opposing sides, the toll was so great that one brother sent his son to study
Buddhism, rather than war. Ippen, as the boy is named by the monks, encounters
friends and other monks and does his best to practice Buddhism. But, in spite
of his longing for peace, he is sent to war, where, in spite of all, he does
his best to live according to his beliefs.
play and the program notes are quite detailed in their description of the
travails of the Kono family and Ippen’s life. Unfortunately, there were no
supertitles. From time to time, the sound track that accompanied the play had
some voice-over in English, but not nearly enough to keep a non-Japanese
speaker in tune with the twists and turns of the history of this famous monk.
Even without a detailed concurrent translation, it would have been helpful to
have a voice-over with the schema of the play. There was a lot of civil war.
Brothers were on opposite sides. One brother killed the other’s wife. Then he
married again. There was a baby who was sent to a monastery. He was given the
name Ippen. Ippen grew up and made friends at the monastery, but he had to
leave. He got married. There was conflict with another monk. He had to go to
war again, and so on. An outline like this would have helped the non-Japanese
speakers to focus, though it was not so hard to follow the hour and a quarter
of the piece.
to presentation, all the stage pictures were elegant, each one like a painting,
but especially striking was the group choreography. These young performers are
not dancers, but they moved with precision, giving their full energy to
whatever movement they were doing. The staged fighting was spectacular, too,
with cutting, stabbing, and death in beautiful stylized form. Choreographer
Chie Nakagawa should be pleased.
so successful was the use of group movement almost at the close of the play as
Ippen and another monk, who seemed to be his nemesis, confront each other. Why
the movement was put into that scene was not clear, and the movements were
merely repetitions of other movements from other parts of the play. Perhaps
that is why they did not resonate.
what most disturbed this reviewer was that Ippen never danced. Nembutsu, religious
chanting, for which Ippen was known. But there was no chanting. Further, the
name given to this production is The Dancing Monk Ippen. If the dance and
chant go together, and if Ippen is known for expressing his Buddhism through
dance, the audience needs to see it. Perhaps in another version, the concept
could start with dance, or chant, or even the ecstatic, and what it means to
try to dance and love when everyone around you is dedicated to war. But that will
be another production. This one has found its ecstasy in the fighting.
August 8th – 15th
The Sheen Center, Loretto Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, NY