Shadows have a magical quality. The ever-changing shapes inspire creativity and imagination and are a constant source of fantasy.
There are even those who argue that shadow theatre is the precursor to cinema: the first method based on the reproduction of movements and actions on a screen; of course, using different techniques.
This summer (August 4-5) the Japanese shadow theatre company Kageboushi performed for the first time in Cuba – offering two free functions to the public – sponsored by the Japanese Embassy in Havana, Japanese Foundation and National Council of Performing Arts.
During a press conference, the event organizers highlighted that the performances are part of ongoing exchanges in various spheres between the two countries which share four centuries of friendship.
The Kageboushi Company, founded 37 years ago and the largest of its kind in Japan, has presented a score of works in more than 70 cities across 24 countries, while their current tour has taken them to another seven in Central America and the Caribbean, with this stop in Havana.
In the National Theatre’s Covarrubias Hall, too small to accommodate the vast interest of Havana’s theatre loving public, Kageboushi put on an innovative show, with scenes created using a combination of silhouettes, puppets, dolls, people, lights and shadows.
The three pieces chosen from its repertory are noteworthy given that they promote values such as gratitude, sacrifice, bravery and respect for one’s elders. The didactic quality of these universal themes is concealed within the magical and beautiful works, performed with admirable skill and technical ability. The pieces demonstrate that there is no competition with the latest generation technology if an ancient art form, such as shadow theater, is performed well.
This was evident in the three works enjoyed by spectators, many of whom sat in the isles, while others stood – to the envy of those unable to enter the hall.
Before the show, the company’s director Yasuaki Yamasaki, gave an explanation of the themes of the works, performed with the use of puppets and the actors’ own shadows.
The first piece, The grateful crane, is a Japanese tale dating back to the 18th or 19th century, about the feeling of gratitude produced by doing good deeds and the custom of returning a favor. A noteworthy feature of the performance was the subtle elegance of the puppets which took the form of a beautiful bird, gliding across the entire screen.
Next to come was The mochi tree, a story popular with all Japanese children, according to Yamasaki. It tells the tale of a fearful child who lives on a mountain and in order to save his grandfather’s life, faces his fears to leave in the middle of a cold snowy night, to go and find a doctor.
The superb synchronization of light and sound in both The grateful crane and The mochi tree, astound and delight. In the third piece, Raise your hand if you want to have fun! The performers use their entire bodies to create figures or images, such as ostriches, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, an octopus, squid, crabs, even volcanoes, trees, the famous ninjas, and a ballerina, who with graceful fluid movements set to the music of Camille Saint-Sans (which would later inspire Michel Fokine’s choreography TheDying Swan for Anna Pavlova), transforms into a swan.
At the end of the one and a half hour show, the performers invited a few children to join them on stage to create shadows using their own bodies.
The cast of Kageboushi was composed of 11 artists, including two musicians, whose dynamic performances enchanted the audience with this genre of theatre.
Given the resounding success of the show, it would be a shame if these two original and extraordinary performances by the Kageboushi human shadow theatre company were the only ones to be held this summer.