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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

The Geishas Are In Town

"Geisha in San Francisco”
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
June 22, 2004

By Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published June 28, 2004

The word obviously had gotten out; two real Geishas were coming to town. A SRO audience packed the Yerba Buena Theater for the Arts, eager to learn more about an art form that seems outrageously outdated and yet continues its grip on the Western imagination. No doubt, part of that pull was the perennial question about “do they or don’t they. . . . with their patrons?”

In major parts this “lecture, dance performance and conversation with two Geishas from Kyoto” was a disappointment. Invited, as part of what only can be called a publicity stunt—one of the Geishas even made the front page of the local daily a few days later, seen shopping and riding on a cable car—they were here to promote the Asian Art Museum’s upcoming exhibit “Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile” (until September 26). The presentation, unfortunately conveyed little new information about the art form though it did answer the question about whether they do or they don’t. They don’t, it’s not part of the job description and never has been.

The evening opened with an illustrated slide show by “Geisha Specialist” Peter MacIntosh. MacIntosh, a transplanted Canadian photo/journalist married to a former Geisha, conducts walking tours in the Geisha district of Kyoto. He is fluent in Japanese, and no doubt something of an insider in this traditional, still somewhat secretive, cultural phenomenon. Apparently, he was asked not to talk about the history of Geisha so as not to pre-empt the information in the Museum’s show. If correct, the Asian Arts Museum took a decidedly short-sighted perspective.

MacIntosh provided something which, I suspect, was pretty close to the spiel he gives to his wealthy business clients who want to peek into the mysterious world of the East—in this case that of the Geishas. Still, the uninitiated probably did learn something about contemporary Geisha life, at least as it is lived by the approximately 200 Geishas of Kyoto.

MacIntosh described them as “entertainers”, under a contract to a specific “house” where a “house mother” controls everything from the training, the clothes, the clients they see, the size of the spending allowances, the food they eat. It is a highly structured, highly hierarchical environment. Most Geishas—in Kyoto they are called Geikos—enter their calling in their teens, undergo a year of preparatory training which includes, among others getting rid of whatever regional accent they have to learn the Kyoto version of Japanese and, a not inconsiderable task, how to move inside a kimono. As an apprentice, in Kyoto called a “Maiko,” the young woman is paired with “an older sister” who acts a mentor. The training consists of traditional arts: tea ceremony, singing, poetry, music, karaoke, skit presentations and social graces. But specifics such as to who, what, how much, by whom was badly missing. One of the pictured artists was described also as a good jazz singer. How did that fit into a Geish’s activities? One of the slides showed a Maiko about to make her debut but no explanation was given of what was involved. In another slide the focal point was a birthday cake presentation—for MacIntosh as it turned out. Yet another showed one of the Geishas managing to drink four glasses of beer without putting the glasses down.

Young women, explained MacIntosh, enter the field often in their teens, sometimes because they love traditional Japanese arts, sometimes for the glamour, sometimes for the security. Some parents encourage daughters for much the same reason little girls take ballet; it promotes grace and discipline. Other parents object, dreading the concomitant loss of contact with a child.

In retirement, Geishas sometimes open a bar, profiting from the personal contacts they had made during their careers. But they also “go independent” as entertainers, or, after additional education, enter professions or get married.

The second part of the presentation consisted of two short dances by Umechika, a Maiko, and Umeha, a Geisha. Yoshie Nakaji, their house mother—a former Geisha—was to accompany them on voice and shamisen. Unfortunately, at the last minute it was decided that the temperature change would be not good for the instrument, so the dancers performed to tape with Nakaji pretending to sing and play. It was almost comical to watch.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was the Meiko that was elaborately costumed and bejeweled. The Geisha appeared in a more modest kimono. One of the differences, MacIntosh explained, was that the apprentice wore her own hair while a Geisha could wear a wig. He also showed how the Meiko’s obi was more elaborate and indicated in its print patterns the artist’s home base. Kimonos, a huge investment by the house get passed on from performer to performer.

The two dancers were lovely to watch. At first they performed in unison and alternated parts; then Umeha performed a graceful fan dance. While elegant and refined, it was salutary to remember that dancing is just one of the skills for which Geishas train.

The real performance, and by far the most interesting part of the evening, came in the question and answer period, though here, too, MacIntosh’s overly jokey manner undercut the presentation. It might have been illustrative, for instance, to get a sense of how the artists approached a given question. Too often, his translation was so peremptory that one wondered what had been left out. He would talk with one of the women while the other tried to answer a question. Or he would make comments about the artists, secure in the knowledge that they did not understand him. At the very least this seemed extremely discourteous.

When the performers came out, the house mother indicated exactly where they had to sit, with the Meiko more downstage. She herself remained on stage, somewhat in the background. At times they would turn around for guidance on who should answer a question. Even a slight displacement of the body, immediately brought about the careful realignment of the kimono parts. One had a sense that they constantly readjusted themselves to fit into a mold. Yet they looked also very comfortable in doing so. It was the totality of the artifice which was fascinating to watch.

The also tried—at least one got the impression—to answer questions thoughtfully. The older one admitted at having lost contact with her family; the apprentice restricts her contact to letter writing since talking on the telephone and hearing her native accent imperils her Kyoto Japanese. When the issues of boyfriends arose, both of their heads snapped back to the housemother. No boyfriends, Nakaji emphatically explained. Even though the explanation was lengthy MacIntosh summarized it with boyfriends being a distraction.

Where will the future patrons come from, was one of the questions asked. The answer was somewhat oblique and a little wistful. In older times, Umeha explained, patrons also were trained in Japanese traditional arts, and they wanted to participate. This is no longer the case. Today patrons simply come to watch.

Photos courtesy of Asian Art Museum.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 24
June 28, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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