Language schools open top performances to community
MIDDLEBURY — Amidst the applause ringing through the room, a student makes his way onto the raised platform. He kneels on the cushion, lowers his body onto his heels in seiza, the traditional way of sitting in Japan, and bows deeply to his audience.
The student flips open a wooden fan and holds it up to his face. When he speaks, he raises his voice to mimic the higher pitch of a woman. He then closes the fan and angles his body slightly as if to face the earlier woman. His voice lowered to the pitch of a man, he points the closed fan accusingly and begins to address the woman.
The audience sits still, swept up in the pace of the student’s performance. In the back and forth dialogue, the student captures the audience’s imagination with only his body, voice and a wooden fan to bring his story to its hilarious end.
The student is part of the Rakugo Club at the Japanese School at this summer’s Middlebury College Language School. The 7- and 8-week summer programs at Middlebury College began in late June, when students sign the Language Pledge in which they renounce the use of their native language for the duration of the program. On campus, sounds of myriad languages fill the air as the college hosts the schools of Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian.
A central premise of the program is that the study of language cannot be divorced from the study of culture. Even in rural Vermont, with limited access to cultural resources, the Language Schools bring a wide array of cultural activities and events to its students.
“We obviously don’t have the natural cultural environment, but we do a lot that really replaces it in very interesting and rich ways,” said Stephen Snyder, dean of Language Schools at Middlebury College.
The directors of each school work with their faculty’s interests and talents to assemble a range of co-curricular activities. Throughout the summer, faculty members coach soccer and volleyball teams in Hebrew, teach students to cook Chinese dishes and lead student discussions on German art history. These activities give students a broad sample of the culture they are learning as well as an opportunity to practice newly acquired language skills.
“The cultural programs are all designed to reinforce the student’s language learning,” said Snyder. “By the same token, all of the cultural programs feed back into the language as students learn about and practice the activity through the language.”
Each language school also hosts larger events through the summer such as lectures, parties and performances, which invite students to delve deeper into a particular aspect of culture. Individual schools invite professionals to give lectures and performances, and many events involve collaborative efforts between these professionals and students.
At the Japanese School, one of the largest events is Rakugo Night. While the school’s director, Kazumi Hatasa, views most of the school’s cultural activities as incentives for language practice, he has developed the school’s Rakugo program to focus on the traditional art of Japanese storytelling itself.
“Rakugo is probably the only (cultural activity) where we’re concerned with the genuine essence,” said Hatasa.
Rakugo is a one-man storytelling show. Dressed in kimonos, solo performers deliver their stories sitting in seiza on a raised stage with only a wooden fan and handkerchief at hand. The performance that ensues relies almost entirely on the performer’s facial expressions and varying tones and pitches to present a range of characters and situations. With this alone, performers move their audiences to laughter, fright and even tears.
The cultural and historical richness of Rakugo, alongside its light financial burden, has allowed it to flourish at the Japanese School. Each year since he became the director of the school, Hatasa has invited three professional performers from Japan for the school’s “Rakugo Week.” Throughout the week, the professionals engage in demonstrations, lectures and classes with all levels of Japanese students before wrapping up the week with a formal performance.
As Rakugo Week gained traction throughout the years, the event transitioned from pure performance to interaction and collaboration with the students. The performers work especially closely with the Rakugo Club, offering students personal feedback at rehearsals before inviting these students to share the stage with them during the final performance.
“I was impressed by the intense training and practice necessary to create an art that focuses purely on the beauty of words,” said Robert Zarate-Morales, a former Japanese School student. “Working with (the professionals) was a great experience.”
Despite the opportunities it affords students to delve into Japanese culture and history, the Japanese School, like the other language schools on Middlebury’s campus, are self-contained entities with little contact with the outside world.
When the Language Schools program first began, this isolation was intentional. Language Schools founder Lilian Stroebe strived to create an environment suitable for the Language Pledge. However, 101 years later, technology and interconnectedness have made this isolation increasingly difficult.
“We had our centennial last summer, and as we move into the next century, we want to provide more connections between the Language Schools and the world,” said Dean Snyder.
Moving forward with the Language Schools, Snyder hopes to strengthen the connections between the schools and the town of Middlebury. He has been working with organizations in town to connect local businesses and schools with the Language Schools without undermining the Language Pledge.
Dean Snyder also hopes to draw more people into the Language Schools for cultural events that are open to the public. As the French School moves into its 100th anniversary and the Chinese School into its 50th anniversary this summer, there is a wide array of events for the public to choose from, from musical performances to festivals.
“Local public show up in the perimeter sometimes, and I would like to see more of the public at the Rakugo Performance (on July 15 at 7:30 p.m.) and at the summer festival,” said Hatasa. “We would love to accommodate them as long as they don’t speak too loudly in English,” he added with a laugh.
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