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Reviewed by:
  • Kabuki for the West
  • Holly A. Blumner
Kabuki for the West. Leonard Pronko and Jack Coogan. Insight Media, 2009. 94 minutes. DVD, $199.

One of the challenges of teaching and learning Asian theatre movement in a classroom or workshop setting in the United States has been the lack of visual materials available in Japanese or English. Leonard Pronko, professor of theatre at Pomona College, together with Takao Tomono, have produced a DVD showcasing college students learning and performing English-language kabuki. This DVD presents possibilities in performance that can be achieved once actors and directors become familiar and proficient with Japanese performance styles. One of the important aspects of this DVD is the opportunity to see how such practices can be put into action, particularly for those who would like to incorporate Japanese theatre techniques into performance but do not know where to start.

The DVD is divided into three segments. The first part showcases traditional English-language kabuki that is directed and performed as closely to kabuki style as possible. Pronko introduces kabuki and describes it as a stylized total form of theatre. As we view excerpts of productions including Narukami, Gohiiki Kanjinchō, (Great Favorite Subscription List) and Fishing for a Wife, performances that Pronko directed at Pomona College (and as a guest professor at University of Hawai‘i), he defines specific kabuki kata (movement) such as the mie (a stylized pose) and roppō (elaborate exit from the hanamichi ramp-way) in addition to other kabuki conventions.

In the second portion of the of the DVD, we see the students at Pomona College learning a vocabulary of movement techniques such as stylized male and female walks, rhythmic patterns that involve stamping the feet, and various ways to hold and move the fan. These techniques are regularly taught by Pronko and his collaborator Takao Tomono in their movement classes. The [End Page 571] movement sequences were developed based on dance movements taught by nihon buyō (Japanese classical dance) teacher Hanayagi Chiyo, whose work Pronko has translated (2008). In a voiceover, Pronko explains the importance of the movement exercises for exposing students of Western acting to a systemized movement style and of building a movement vocabulary that they can use in different styles of acting performances. Students learn traditional gendered styles of performing kabuki and small sequences from kabuki plays. Most of the students shown on the DVD and featured in Pronko’s productions have had no Japanese theatre experience when they begin their training. Their mastery of technique, demonstrated in the clips of theatre performances throughout the DVD, is impressive.

The third section of the DVD showcases the experimental theatre performances directed by Leonard Pronko and performed by his students between 1965 and 2006. Selections range from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to an original Native American folk tale, Revenge at Spider Mountain, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei’s Fireplay: The Legend of Prometheus. Pronko discusses his directorial concepts for many of these fusion performances. In Revenge at Spider Mountain, which combines kabuki, Native American folklore, and influences from spaghetti Western films, Pronko explains his interest in Native American myths and his desire to use kabuki techniques to show how the United States had betrayed the Navajo Indians. Using a variety of movement and voice patterns, Pronko incorporates these stylized elements into his original play. He isolates kabuki voice and movement techniques in his fusion plays to differing degrees to create dynamic new theatrical scenes and to encourage his actors to use their voices and bodies in new ways.

Leonard Pronko was the first non-Japanese to study in the kabuki training program at Japan’s National Theatre and has spent much of his career teaching kabuki and promoting Japanese dance (see Sorgenfrei 2011). In 1986, he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure Third Degree by the Japanese government for his contributions to Japanese theatre, art, and culture. In addition to his well-known books, including the classic Theatre East and West (1967), he produced two videos, Kabuki Acting Techniques I: The Body (Richmond 1980a) and Kabuki Acting Techniques II: The Voice (Richmond 1980b), through Michigan State University in 1980. His DVD Kabuki for the West is a continuation...