Jannette Cheong is a poet, writer, designer, curator and an affiliated artist with Theatre Nohgaku. Born in London, Jannette has worked nationally and internationally in higher education. In addition, for over 25 years, she has been involved in the organisation and facilitation of many international education and creative arts collaborations working with both national and international organisations.
She was the first British person to write an English-language noh, Pagoda, which used traditional noh techniques, in collaboration with Richard Emmert, the Oshima Theatre and Theatre Nohgaku. Pagoda was premiered at the Southbank Centre, London, in 2009 and toured to Dublin, Oxford and Paris. In 2011 Pagoda opened at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo and toured to Kyoto, Beijing and Hong Kong and as such is believed to be one of the most internationally performed English-language noh plays to date.
Pagoda-related activities included collaboration not only with theatres, but also universities, schools, museums and festivals. The development of such 'Getting to Noh' programmes of educational and outreach work, has been an important aspect of Richard's and Jannette's noh-related collaboration work.
Performing the role of The Traveller (Waki) in Pagoda in 2009, Southbank Centre, London; then Dublin, Oxford & Paris. Also, in 2011 at the National Noh Theatre, Tokyo, Kongoh Theatre, Kyoto, the National Centre of the Performing Arts, Beijing and the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, Hong Kong.
Other non-noh art-related projects in recent years
In 2012 and 2014 Jannette curated a major retrospective exhibition of celebrated photographer Clive Barda (whose 2009 photographs of Pagoda are now among the most iconic images of the piece). In 2009 (London) and 2015 (Shanghai) she facilitated two international performing arts forums where she could also draw upon her own unique international and inter-cultural 'page to stage' experience.
In 2017, Jannette wrote the short song cycle Reflection composed by Evan Kassoff and performed in Philadelphia, USA.
Noh time like the present...
Jannette's long-standing interest in noh was brought into full focus again from 2015-2017 when she began working on, and co-produced, ‘Noh time like the present…’ an acclaimed tribute to professional noh actor Akira Matsui with Richard Emmert and Unanico Group, at LSO St Luke’s, London. The programme comprised four separate works - three of which included Akira Matsui performing noh in a unique fusion with western arts:
Rockaby written by Samuel Beckett, performed by Akira Matsui and Hugh Quarshie
Noh Hayashi Compilation composed Richard Emmert and performed by Eitaro Okura, Kayu Omura and Richard Emmert
Noh meets Bach performed by Akira Matsui and Lucia Capellaro
Opposites-InVerse (2017) written by Jannette Cheong and composed and directed by Richard Emmert in collaboration with Akira Matsui. Performed and choreographed by Akira Matsui and Peter Leung, working with opera singers Li Meili, Piran Legg as the chorus, and Eitaro Okura, Kayu Omura and Richard Emmert as the hayashi (instrumentalists).
Jannette's interest in this work was the specific challenge to noh and to Akira Matsui - especially Matsui sensei's special interest and talent to explore and rise to such inter-cultural challenges. She wrote, as her tribute to Akira, in her piece Learning from Noh, in the book she specially designed for the Noh time like the present programme, edited by Richard Emmert:
Discovering patterns of change through performance art, especially noh
Extracting and exemplifying meaning from universal patterns of change, through performance art, especially noh, has been a surprisingly cathartic and deeply fascinating learning experience. This was also the case with the noh play Pagoda (2008, 2011), with its universal themes of migration and identity. Opposites-InVerse, premiered in this programme, is a more conceptual noh-fusion piece exploring opposites through poetry and performance.
In noh, characters can be alive, dead, mythical, human, non-human and possibly any configuration of these! Akira Matsui demonstrates this very clearly by using a noh mask and his body to represent an old man, a young woman, his performance partner (Peter), and (without a mask) himself in Opposites-InVerse. There are many different aspects of the opposites phenomenon to explore in life. In the piece we exemplify three (opposition, attraction and balance). This ability to transform has another fascinating ‘opposite’ phenomenon - how we determine what is 'real' or 'unreal'... Imagination is a timeless human faculty, as powerfully conveyed through this minimalist 650 year-old art as it is today.
Exploring how different genres might be combined with noh
Life is a multi-disciplinary experience. Opposites-InVerse has the intent of crossing disciplines to reflect this. This is both in the interpretation of opposites through the poetic structures of noh, and in bringing diverse genres together. The latter because that fusion embodies the soul of the piece. Richard Emmert, my collaborator for Pagoda, and I first explored noh melodies sung by opera vocalists at a workshop in 2015 with opera vocalists Meili Li, Piran Legg and Bethan Langford, which included Akira Matsui. This followed my shadowing of the new MA in Opera Making & Writing at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama for a year. This happened while we were exploring a cross-cultural animation film of Pagoda working with Unanico. It was as a consequence of this that we also considered the bringing together of contemporary dance and noh in discussion with Matsui sensei and Peter Leung for Opposites-InVerse. We were particularly excited about this prospect after seeing what the artists could achieve together in another workshop held in July 2016. It was immensely inspiring to see artists, young and old, use their artistic abilities to cross apparent cultural and discipline divides with relative ease and great enthusiasm.
The challenges of international collaboration...
It would be fair to say that performing arts are collaborative endeavours created out of a huge amount of hard work - and the right opportunities, situations and circumstances that can bring artists together. This is even more so for international collaborations which have several additional layers of complexity. They include not only linguistic and geographical challenges, but more importantly attitudes to cultural difference. Having been born international (of mixed heritage), I am immensely grateful that my life has also been enriched by ‘being international’. This has come from the privilege of working with many people internationally, including Richard Emmert, Akira Matsui and all of our collaborating artists.
It is hard to say what comes first, the project or the people; the conditions (mentioned above) have to be right and both have to inspire those concerned enough to collaborate. Time, quality and costs are essential to successful projects, and we are all challenged by these, but three other elements come to mind: passion for the art and to see something through, humility to see the special talents in others, and a willingness to work hard at building the special relationships needed to cement everything together.
Building special relationships
I think I am of the mind that it is this building of special relationships that is paramount. In the noh world only Akira Matsui could rise to the artistic challenge of combining a conceptual, complex ‘East meets West’ piece with contemporary ballet and opera vocals. ‘Noh time like the present...’ is a tribute to Akira’s special qualities, including his infectious positive approach to new work - as illustrated by the many tributes in this programme. We should also recognise the work of Richard Emmert.
There are no conductors in the world of noh. The artistic discipline of all the performers and how they work together is central to the ‘orchestration’ of noh. But it seems to me that Rick has been pivotal in building the special relationships needed to develop new noh work internationally. As a composer, director, performer (actor/instrumentalist/singer) he has the depth of understanding that has cemented many new noh, and noh-fusion works. Working together with Akira and the company he founded (Theatre Nohgaku) they have developed so many special relationships and new collaborations; at least enough for two lifetimes! So my special thanks goes to Richard Emmert’s teacher Akira Matsui for what he has taught my teacher, Richard Emmert... and what we continue to learn from both of them!"
It is more of this new learning that we hope to bring to Between the Stones.
The new noh - Between the Stones
Finding inspiration Between the Stones...
The seeds of inspiration found in Between the Stones also came from one of Jannette's many visits to the temple gardens of Kyoto - which she regards as wonderful places for reflection. She recalls:
After that memorable visit to the temple gardens in the middle of a typhoon, Jannette created these words and images - 'Water Lilies in a Typhoon' in October 2013:
Two other tragic losses were to take place in Jannette's life soon after the loss of her beautiful sister, Dianna. The last was her dear friend and mentor Dika, otherwise known to her family as 'Farmor'...
Between the Stones is a tribute to lost loved ones and their memories, the power of gardens to nurture and heal the soul... and to finding beauty and love from tragic loss.
Image and photography by Jannette Cheong