Elegance can alienate. The sort cultivated by gagaku, Japan's court music, and bugaku, the corresponding dance style, easily puts people off -- which may have been the intent of those who devised these ceremonial entertainments between the 5th and 9th centuries. This art was meant for the select few, and as the Gagaku USA Tour by the Heishin Hogakukai company from Kobe showed Friday night at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, some of the elite live in Washington. It's not surprising to find that audience in a city of museums and government offices, because the composers and choreographers of these works were curators and bureaucrats as much as they were artists.
Movement and music from continental Asia was preserved in bugaku and gagaku, and regulated to conform to Japanese rules. The dancing is deliberate and measured. Motions, but not the dancers' bodies, often seem stiff. There aren't many steps -- a high one forward, a medium-deep knee bend in wide second position, a slide to the side and a leg swing are the basics. Arm action varies, with a spear being balanced in one dance, a knifelike stick wielded in another and, in a peaceful number, the performers seeming to embrace themselves. If bugaku begins and ends on the audience's left, the costuming is red-orange; starting on the right side of the balustrade-enclosed platform makes water green the obligatory color in which to be gowned. Symmetry, though, dominates as the dances are shown sequentially from all sides -- the rear view seeming the most different.
Examples of purely orchestral music, kangen, proved to be difficult listening. In "Netori" there isn't supposed to be an overall beat, yet even in some other pieces each instrument sounded as if it had its own pace. Perhaps it only seemed so because the wailing tones of the gagaku winds and strings are difficult to start and stop. In contrast, the long-breath vocal music, utaimono, and the instrumental accompaniment for the dances are rigidly timed.
The company's concertmaster, Yukio Kashiwagi, is also its star dancer. In a solo about a handsome king who wears a fearsome mask to frighten his enemies, Kashiwagi conveyed the rigidity of movement in armor, yet made one aware that his tall frame remained supple. Still, gagaku is more awesome than appealing. There's none of the whimsy of Indic lyric theater. Although the stage colors are strong, their limited spectrum (add the musicians' golden yellow to the dancers' orange or green) makes them seem institutional. In the music there are high, middle and low notes, but with only a few in each register, this discontinuous scale seems ascetic. Gagaku is traditionally all-male, and these men's invariably stern expression makes them seem not so much monastic as like officials.