Practicing classical Japanese dance in the 21st century: Balancing the demands of being a career woman and continuing the family legacy | Ume Nakamura (Part1)
On the face of it, Ms. Ume Nakamura (24) leads a normal life. After graduating university she entered into a company as a fresher, and from Monday to Friday she is learning her trade as a junior member of staff. But beyond the demands of work, she has a large responsibility to carry on the family business. Ume is the eldest daughter of Umeya Nakamura, the eighth Headmaster of the “Nakamura School” of Nihon Buyo (classical Japanese dance). Nippon Collection visited Ume’s house in the traditional Tokyo neighbourhood of Kagurazaka to discuss what its like to balance these dual identities, and the challenges of preserving this classical form of dance in an age of declining interest among millennials.
How do you balance your time as a career woman and a professional dancer?
Growing up in a family that lives and breathes traditional Japanese arts, working for a company that is in the Kabuki theatre business was pretty much a natural choice for me. My role is in design and product development related to “Kumadori,” a special face paint used by Kabuki actors to show different expressions and more detailed facial features such as blood vessels. Our face paint designs are used in popular products and accessories and so I am constantly thinking about what is most appealing to the general public. Perhaps the most interesting discovery I have made so far is that most people want designs that are less subtle and more obvious in their depiction of “Japaneseness.” Surprisingly this applies more so to regular Kabuki theatre goers.
On weekends I am either practicing my dance routines or performing on stage. But otherwise if I have some free time I do pretty normal things - I like to hit the shops, watch films or eat out in restaurants with friends. I think for me, the most important thing is to try new things.
Have you always had a passion for classical Japanese dance?
I think my first exposure to classical Japanese dance was at 2 years old. I still remember the feeling of nervousness the first time I stepped onto the stage at the Kabuki-za (the largest Kabuki theatre in Japan). Naturally I was scared about standing in front of lots of people. Looking back now at those early years, I think it was the words of encouragement that I received from the audience and fellow dancers that kept me going. For me, dance was simply a routine, and not yet a way of life. Just like how lots of parents take their children to piano lessons, I was made to practice classical dance. The only real difference was that I had spend a long time putting on the white make-up before practicing – fortunately my friends thought it was cool at the time!
My path was distinct from my mother who is now Headmaster of the Nakamura School. From a very early age she had a passion for classical dance and took every opportunity to practice or perform. In the world of classical Japanese dance, this is the norm, and diverging from this path usually is a sign that one’s future lies elsewhere. When I reached high school I was convinced that I hadn’t been given the calling like my mother, and tried to avoid dance as much as possible. Fortunately my family was very understanding, and there was no pressure placed upon me to succeed my mother as the next Headmaster, which is commonly the expectation. In fact, my father pushed me in the opposite direction and suggested that I gain broader experiences and new perspectives outside of the world of classical dance. With no real reason to continue, it seemed that my journey as a professional dancer had ended.
The images are scenes from the performance of “Shunkyo Kagami Jishi,” a famous play in Japanese classical dance and one of the 18 standard pieces in the modern Kabuki repertoire. The play tells the story of a new year’s celebration at the castle in Edo. Maids in the inner court brought a servant-girl named Yayoi into the presence of a Lord. Confused at the circumstances, Yayoi began to dance (left). Shortly after, she put on a mask of a lion’s head, and became possessed by the lion, moving her to dance madly (right).
This particular performance in May 2016 also signaled the grand unveiling of the stage name “Ume Nakamura”.
What was the turning point for you?
To be honest, I think it was a gradual change. During my senior years at university I began to think about what job and career path I would take. The more I started to weigh up the options, the more I realized how important my mother’s influence on me was. I started to consider my mother’s approach to her role as Headmaster and realized that she simply loved what she was doing and took little thought for how to promote her work or how she would earn a living. I started to feel as though it was my calling to support my mother in someway so that she can be an even greater success. And so it wasn’t necessarily me being called to promote classical dance.
So when deciding on what to do after university, I knew that I had to go out into the world of work. Being born into a long line of classical dancers, I could easily spend my life within that bubble without learning about other fields and ways of thinking. I was sure that I could better contribute to my mother’s work if I had broader skills to bring to the table. I stopped taking intensive dance lessons and spent the first year after graduating as a normal Monday-Friday office worker. In order to dedicate myself to my work and maintain my social life, I completely stepped away from dance practice for the whole year. I didn't fully explain to my mother why I had made the choice to take a break from dancing, and no doubt she thought I had quit for good this time.
A year away gave me time to reflect on where I belong. I returned to the world of classical dance with a renewed sense of purpose.
... to be continued
About the Nakamura School of Classical Japanese Dance:
The first Headmaster of the Nakamura School was the Utaemon Nakamura III, a successful Kabuki actor in the Bunka/Bunsei period (1804 - 1830). The school is well known for its careful attention to the Kabuki dance and postures. In 2012, Umeya Nakamura II, the eldest daughter of Shikan Nakamura VII, succeeded as the eighth Headmaster. Ume Nakamura belongs to this long line of Kabuki actors. Ume appeared on NHK broadcasting’s E-tele channel, in a show that introduced Japan’s traditional arts, "Nippon no Geino", performing "Take kurabe" on the 16th September 2016.
Interview by: Yuki Kitamura, Kaoru Kuribayashi-Stanislaus
Translated by: Warren Stanislaus
Photos by: Ayano Tsuchiya