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No Time like the Present

On the first day of May last year, Japan’s Emperor Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne as the 126th ruler of his dynasty. I was performing in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House that evening and remember mentioning this special occurrence to one of the ballet dancers, Lara Turk, as we passed each other backstage. “We’re in a new era! The Reiwa era!”, I said, explaining that the Japanese word ‘Reiwa’ translates as ‘beautiful harmony’. My excitement was not for Emperor Naruhito, the Japanese state or even the Japanese people, it stretched far beyond the frontiers of one Island. My excitement was for the evolution of the world itself, and us humans, the animals, plants, trees, flowers and things that inhabit it. “What developments will take place in this new epoch?” I asked myself, whilst tracing a line of black ink across my eyebrow in front of the dressing room mirror. “What truly great art and music will emerge? Will our world be beautiful and harmonious? What will the people after us write about our era in a hundred years’ time when all is said and done?”.

When I think about the word era my thoughts turn to radical and revolutionary periods in the history of art. I imagine the palace pavilions of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, written in the Heian era, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and the Vienna Secession, Franz Schubert’s Lieder, William Shakespeare and the raucous atmosphere of Elizabethan England, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in the Victorian period, the New Romantics era with the Blitz Kids, or the birth of Kabuki with Izumo no Okuni in the Edo era. These were all periods of radical change that inspired radical art, or perhaps it was the radical art that inspired radical change. Either way, history proves that not all eras are filled with the same amount of friction and fire, and sometimes more can happen in one year than over one-hundred years. Tension, friction. Friction creates sparks, sparks brighten up new ideas.

The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), Shōren'in Sonjun Shinnō, 17th century
The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), Shōren'in Sonjun Shinnō, 17th century.

There is an overflowing sense of tension in our present world. For the first time in history almost the entire world has been forced into lockdown. Physical contact with our loved cafés, libraries, art galleries, museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, schools, playgrounds, tennis courts, gardens, friends and family is forbidden and everything has come to a halt. It’s as if Time itself has been suspended, whilst we tread across a narrow gangplank towards some new and unknown era.

“To live in the midst of an era is to be oblivious to its style. You and I, you see, must be immersed in some style of living or other, but we’re like goldfish swimming around in a bowl without ever noticing it. Take yourself: yours is a world of feeling. You appear different from most people. And you yourself are quite sure that you have never allowed your personality to be compromised. However, there is absolutely no way of proving that. The testimony of your contemporaries has no value whatever. Who knows? It may just be that your world of feeling represents the style of this era in its purest form. But then again, there’s no way of knowing.”

- Spring Snow (from The Sea of Fertility tetralogy) Yukio Mishima.

I will not attempt here to predict what the style of our era is or will be, that would be missing the point. ‘Each period has its own style, and no artist living in a particular era can completely transcend that era’s style, whatever his individual outlook.’ (Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima). I believe it is more important, as Richard Schechner writes in the introduction of his book, Performance Studies, ‘to become as aware as possible of one’s own stance in relation to the positions of others… And then take steps to maintain or change those positions.’ For me this means delving deeper and deeper into the elements of drama and music that I love and cultivating my understanding of Kabuki. It is crucially important I think to question what and why something inspires or moves you the way it does. Even if you’re not sure where this all quite leads to next. When I first saw Kabuki performed live at the Kabuki-za in Japan in July 2018 I was immediately struck by the sense of beauty in a flash. The play was Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) starring Ebizo Ichikawa XI (now Ichikawa Danjuro XIII) and as I sat there watching the story unfold, I felt as if my own individual outlook was unravelling before me. I saw my ideas about aesthetics and movement reflected on stage. Yukio Mishima also had a deeply felt passion for Kabuki and in 1970, the year of his death, he gave a speech, “Kabuki is the Flower of Evil”, to the inaugural class of Kabuki trainees at the National Theatre. In one part of this speech Mishima says:

"You can't expect anyone to understand kabuki without sensual fascination. Through that narrow path of sensory charm, kabuki slides out in front of you. If you close that path, none of what lies behind it will come out."

I look forward to discovering more about what lies beneath the surface of this beautiful art form because it is the only way to go across to the other side. What that other side is I do not know yet. Only time will tell. As David Bowie, another Yukio Mishima and Kabuki lover famously said on his 50th birthday at Madison Square Gardens, “I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.”

David Bowie sleeping in front of his painting of Yukio Mishima.
David Bowie sleeping in front of his painting of Yukio Mishima. © Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis

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