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Noh, Kyogen, Ritual Dancers

Japanese theater is rooted in myth, religion and ritual. Noh descends from Shinto rites performed at shrines and the imperial court aimed at conjuring the gods. Noh coalesced as the set of practices and plays we recognize today by the 14th century. Noh performances, traditionally patronized by the elite classes, comprise two main characters, a few minor actors, a chanter or narrator and the chorus. With stories drawn from mythology and folktales, a traditional Noh program stretches over many hours, and consists of five plays, punctuated by Kyogen. Male actors in magnificent costumes play gods, ghosts, demons, warriors, beautiful women and madmen.

Masks are worn by the shite, or main actor, for all non-human and female characters, and for male roles with special characteristics such as youth, old age or blindness. Noh masks number over 200 types.

Kyogen, literally wild words, evolved as comic interludes devised as relief from the somber and philosophical themes of Noh performances. Kyogen characters highlight human foibles and frailties through coarse dialogue and broad slapstick movements.

Dances, reminders that Japanese theater is rooted in the folk tradition, occur throughout Noh productions and also inflect Kabuki dramas. Supernatural characters, embodied in such masks as the benign old man Okina, or the be-hatted Sambaso, are associated with distinctive dances.