Theatre of Yugen Fermentation Symposium
The Fermentation Laboratory Symposium has developed a totally new kind of cultural dinner theater at the intersection of food and performance that entertains and teaches through all the senses. You may ask, “Where and how can food, dance, and theater intersect?”
Theatre of Yugen, dedicated to the preservation of traditional Japanese theatrical forms of Kyogen and Noh, intertwines tradition with new approaches. Japanese culinary, artistic and scientific masters collaborate by bringing together disparate forms of performance alongside the dishes that inspired them through a multisensory interpretation. This experiment has been tested for two stagings, but organizers expect more will be offered as the concept is refined.
This totally new kind of theatrical event melds performance with an immersive culinary experience designed by distinguished talents from the U.S. and Japan. It is the culmination of a year-long National Endowment of the Arts funded project in collaboration with the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network.
Participation engages all the senses. The flavorful and healthy fermented food stimulates all the human tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. In contrast to many foods that Westerners associate with fermentation, such as beer, yoghurt, and pickles, whose flavors are sharp, those selected for presentation are generally subtle. The associated dances are physically exacting, rigorous, refined, and raw, all at the same time.
Each mini food course (about the size of a single sushi) on the New Year Menu is introduced by a mysterious unseen speaker, Mariko Grady, and accompanied by one or more forms of performance to enhance appreciation of and knowledge about Japanese culture. The food is served to each audience member by two young ladies in Japanese dress, and begins with tofu datemaki which has a mild taste and looks like a small spiral of dough. At the same time a guitarist plays a melody, joined by a speed reading in English of text analyzing the difference between Eastern and Western forms of fermentation.
While enjoying kabura-sushi which combines the textures of crunchy turnip and pickle with a very smooth jellylike salmon, a male dancer, Shinichi Iowa-Kota, moves sinuously and slowly in what appears to be an awakening from the darkness to symbolize the emergence of the New Year.
As in many other cultures some foods represent long-life, health and prosperity. In this case, the food is burdock; with the yahata-maki dish made from burdock and carrots rolled in fish and meat. Three female dancers, Megan and Shannon Kurashige and Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue seem to portray the New Year as awakening birds led by a pied-piper flutist, Erika Oba.
Zouni, a mochi soup is served. This Kyoto-style milky miso soup has a floor of mochi – a sticky, gooey pounded rice similar in consistency to Hawaiian poi. The dancer, Shinichi Iowa-Kota again, demonstrates the making and the being of mochi. His intricately controlled body movements alternately depict the pounding of the mallet and the pounded, then kneaded, grain, as he slams himself to the floor. Concurrently, the audience participates by learning and singing the song about the processing of the rice.
Dengaku, a folk dance performed at rice planting time to wish for good crops, is represented by miso dengaku which is tofu simmered daikon with miso sauce, and in this case served as two mini lollipops. Fermented food microbiologist, Carol Ishimaru, accompanies this course singing a medley of American and British songs framed by the folk song “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair” and the Beatle’s “I Will.” Meanwhile, Nick Ishimaru, Yugen’s artistic director, performs a set of three slow moving Japanese Noh and Kyogen fan dances. Completing the affair, Dan Takao Ishimaru plays guitar.
Dessert tops off this event as the final ushering in of traditional Japanese New Year. A personalized history of this dessert of kuromame and amazake, recited by the Kurashige sisters, tells of their Japanese-Hawaiian grandmother who handed down the beloved recipe. But each daughter received a slightly different version, none of which tasted as delicious as grandma’s original. This multi-layered sweet-tart treat topped with black beans has a surprise pale orange jelly at the bottom. Inspired by the dish and the coming New Year, the three females offer a commemorative dance. The three dancers seem like cranes or chickens in a field, interconnected yet individually honoring the fertile fields and the air.
Kudos to the artists, scientists, chefs and funders for developing a complete experience that promotes insight into one aspect of Japanese culture and cuisine. These opportunities can do much to assist cross-cultural understanding.
The Fermentation Symposium, produced by Theatre of Yugen in collaboration with the NEA, the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network, Aedan Foods, Sharp and Fine Dance Company, Inkboat Dance Company, and University of Minnesota professor, Carol Ishimaru, played at Nohspace, 2840 Mariposa St, San Francisco, CA in December, 2017.