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Performance | Ich bin Prinzessin Anju / I am Princess Anju
A contemporary Ballad and Dance Performance by Yuko Kaseki, Hiromi Ito and Kanoko Nishi

In the context of the Cluster workshop “Transforming a Medieval Saga Into a Contemporary Ballad and Dance Performance” organized by Prof. Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit in autumn 2023, Hiromi Ito, 2022 Dorothea Schlegel Artist in Residence, Butoh artist Yuko Kaseki, 2023 Dorothea Schlegel Artist in Residence, and koto player Kanoko Nishi transformed a medieval Japanese Buddhist ballad into a transdisciplinary dance performance. Combining a recreation of the text by Hiromi Ito, dance, and music, they created a multi-layered artwork of translation and adaption that re-stages and re-writes the traditional legend from a feminist perspective.

The Dance Performance “Ich bin Princess Anju“/Watashi wa Anju himeko de aru on Nov. 11, 2023, was the highlight of a Workshop organized by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit in the programme of Research Area 2 “Travelling Matters”.

The project originated as an offspin of an event with Japanese poet and writer Hiromi Itō, the 2022 Dorothea Schlegel artist-in-residence, whose 3 months’ stay in Berlin was dedicated to exploring a famous Japanese predecessor themed "In the Footsteps of Ōgai". 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the famous Japanese author and mediator of European literature to Japan, Mori Ōgai (1862-1922). The event titled “Inspiration Ōgai”, a cooperation between the EXC2020, the Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB) and the Mori Ogai Memorial Hall (MOG) at Humboldt University titled “Inspiration Ogai” featured one of Ogai’s most influential and best-known works to show his continuing reception into the 21st century. Ōgai’s tale "Sanshō, the Bailiff", which goes back to a medieval, Buddhist-influenced story, was later adapted in Bunraku puppet theatre, Kabuki and more. One of the most important films in cinema history, MIZOGUCHI Kenji's "Sanshō Dayū" (Silver Lion Venice 1954), was based on Ōgai's story. In 1993, Hiromi Itō had created a new version from a female perspective as a ballad, which she performed in the style of traditional travelling narrators. These elements were used in a new format to create an event in four parts of 30 minutes each. More on this experimental format, conceptualized by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, with Itō, and actors Lena Stolze and Rainer Strecker, is to be found here.

The new project, a transformation of Itō’s ballad into a dance performance, emerged when Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit had translated the whole text into German. As for the music, the core team decided on US-based experimental koto player Kanoko Nishi. And as the Japanese original text would be performed by its author, a visualization of text elements as a video projection would be essential for the audience in order to be able to follow the storyline, a task entrusted to Berlin-based Japanese artists. The location originally decided on in spring had to be abandoned on short notice because of technical problems, but the performance was successfully hosted to an audience of app. 120 persons in the lecture hall at the basement of Freie Universität’s Holzlaube, at the Department of History and Cultural Studies.

A number of felicitous connections facilitated the complex concept, as most of its actors had known each other beforehand. Since April 2023, regular online online working meetings of the participants took place across 3 continents (Japan, USA, Germany) to manage its organisation and realization, followed by two weeks of intensive and almost daily rehearsals in Berlin from late October. The following persons were involved in various functions:

Hiromi Ito: author of the ballad “Watashi wa Anju Himeko de aru”, performance
Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, translator of „Ich bin Princess Anju“, organiser
Yuko Kaseki: dance and direction
Kanoko Nishi: music
Tomoko Mori and Sae Esashi: video
Antonio Carallo: artistic and choreographic advisor
Daniel Paiva de Miranda: light

The event was supported by the Ernst-Reuter-Gesellschaft der Freunde, Förderer & Ehemaligen der Freien Universität Berlin e.V, and the Division of International Affairs of Freie Universität Berlin.

"Ich bin Prinzessin Anju" – A Transliterary Performance

Japanese poet and writer Hiromi Ito, the 2022 Dorothea Schlegel Artist in Residence, wrote a contemporary version of one of the best-known medieval Japanese Buddhist legends, the saga of Sanshō the Bailiff, a tale of filial piety, vice and treachery, self-sacrifice and salvation. Ito’s feminist version focuses on the fate of a girl named Anju, who is cruelly abused by various men but survives and meets other legendary figures from Japanese folktales. The ballad was transformed into a dance performance with Butō artist Yuko Kaseki (Dorothea-Schlegel-Artist in Residence 2023) and koto player Kanoko Nishi in the context of a workshop analysing the various layers of transformation and translation between expressive media, including the role of and interplay with music and video installations. In the interplay of language, sound and movement movement, a radically altered version of Anju was materialised, combining a contemporary re-reading and re-staging with a multifold of references to Japanese literary tradition, performative arts and music.

The performance grew out of an event organized by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit at the Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB) in August 2022 as a cooperation between EXC 2020, JDZB and the Mori Ogai Memorial Hall at Humboldt University with Hiromi Itō titled “Inspiration Ogai” (LINK!), centering around Ogai’s historical story titled “Sanshō the Bailiff”. That event’s unique approach was to show various transformations of the early 20th century author’s text, who had popularized the medieval saga for a modern audience. Ito’s version displayed a radical transformation of the narrative material, performed by her in the manner of medieval itinerant storytellers together with actress Lena Stolze, who staged the German language version. A recording of their staging can be found here.

From out of this expressive performance grew the idea to further transform Itō’s ballad, which in itself is the result of multiple re-readings and translations and shifts of genre, into a dance performance with additional expressive layers. Ito’s poetic style, which combines elements of medieval rhythmical sekkyōbushi storytelling with modernist lyricism and contemporary diction, meets with the unique expressive techniques of butō, a Japanese post world-war II avant-garde form of expressive dance with a vocabulary of “crude physical gestures and uncouth habits” as an “assault on the refinement and understatement so valued in Japanese aesthetics” (Vicki Sanders). This performative tradition presented by Yuko Kaseki, which shows an affinity to extremes of the human condition or extreme physical environments, was deepened through the cooperation with experimental koto player Kanoko Nishi, using her traditional Japanese musical instrument in a variety of expressive ways, including interventive acts and strong percussive moments.

The ballad text, written by Hiromi Itō in 1993, is based on the medieval legend of Sanshō Dayū that can be found in many traditions and contexts since medieval times. Itō based her own re-creation of this text, made widely popular by Mori Ōgai’s 1915 story, on a variant of a shamaness from north-east Japan that was recorded and transcribed by an ethnologist in 1931. In a radical reinterpretation of the legend Itō places the child Anju at the centre and tells the story from her perspective. Sometimes the perspective changes and the mother speaks with Anju’s or the narrator’s voice. The deeply surreal ballad is divided into four parts. 1. The Laughing Body, 2. Rebirth, 3. The Travelling Child and 4. I am Princess Anju. In the last part, other myths and legends are evoked, such as the Japanese myth of the heavenly sibling gods, the mountain witch and the legend of the healing Tennoji. The story spans the origin of history, and culminates in a celebration of healing and new beginnings. The performance emphasizes language in its performative dimensions. It is through language that Anju manifests her existence in the act of narration and in the medium of performative speech.