The North American Sogetsu Seminar is like the Olympics of flower arranging (though, of course, only for North America). Held once every four years in a different North American city, the five day seminar on the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging known as ikebana (ike = living, bana = flowers) arrives in Los Angeles for the first time this weekend with a host of workshops, lectures and receptions expected to attract participants from all over the world.
The jewel in the crown for enthusiasts is the first live theatrical performance of ikebana to be given in the United States. Titled Iemoto Ikebana Live and held on Saturday at the Aratani Japan America Theater downtown, this event features Akane Teshigahara, the world renowned Iemoto (or headmaster) of the prestigious Sogetsu School of Ikebana in Tokyo, as she creates a spectacular stage-size flower arrangement in a carefully choreographed and orchestrated demonstration of the art set to music. (Unfortunately, it's sold out).
While ikebana typically celebrates minimalist beauty, there is certainly nothing minimalist about the scale of this particular live event. Ten pupils and paid artists will assist Teshigahara on stage, while another 20 local teachers and students will help out behind the scenes in the creation of the work.
“I can't divulge too much about the performance, but I can say it will involve hundreds of pieces of bamboo and leaves and hundreds of fresh flowers,” said local ikebana student Ravi GuneWardena, an architect and partner in the Silver Lake architecture firm EscherGuneWardena, who is helping to organize the event.
No one knows which varieties of flower will be featured in the performance: that will depend on what Teshigahara selects when she visits the Los Angeles Flower Market downtown prior to the show.
GuneWardena, who has studied ikebana for the last five years, explained the difference between the Japanese art and the Western concept of flower arranging.
“In Western flower arranging the main flower is put in the vase first and then the space between is filled in with more flowers or leaves,” he says. “In contrast, Japanese flower arranging tends to be fairly sparse. It's about experiencing the individuality of each stem. In ikebana, a single flower, branch and leaf is considered sufficient for an arrangement. The idea is to examine the space between, to look at line and proportion.”
This minimalist approach to flower arranging means that practitioners of ikebana often start with a leafless branch to establish the line and — in direct contrast with Western technique — the flower becomes the last element to be added.
“I often liken it to music, playing jazz or doing Bach improvisations,” Sri-Lankan-born GuneWardena said of practicing ikebana. “You have to learn your basics and practice the scales and master the rules but then you have to be able to break them and improvise on the spot.”
Newcomers to the Japanese art may be surprised to learn that unlike genteel Western stereotypes of flower arranging — long-considered the province of housewives and aging spinsters — ikebana practitioners were originally, and for many centuries, men. And not just any men either, but virile Samurai warlords. Ikebana is believed to have arrived in Japan in the 13th century, when it was associated with the Buddhist ritual of flower offerings. It was practiced and promoted by the elite Samurai class, whose fearless warriors were also expected to be well-versed in the romantic arts of music, poetry and flower arranging. It remained the province of the Japanese nobility and aristocracy until the 19th century when the Samurai power structure waned and Western ideas about decorating and beautifying the home gained prominence in Japan. Ikebana became a middle class practice, the domaine of the housewife rather than the warlord.
Until the 19th century, ikebana continued to be dominated by a very traditional form of the art, known as Ikenobu. But by the mid-1800s people wanted to free themselves from this rigid form and by the late 19th century another major school, known as Ohara, achieved prominence. This school strove for a more naturalistic and romantic vision in which arrangements were made to resemble clumps of flowers growing in a meadow.
However, the modern version of ikebana was not born until 1927, when the late Iemoto Sofu Teshigahara (1900-1979) founded the Sogetsu School in Tokyo. One of several schools of ikebana flower arranging founded in Japan, but now followed by practitioners throughout the world, Sogetsu now has 40 branches in Japan and 125 worldwide.
Much of Sogetsu's success was due to Sofu's belief that ikebana should be both enjoyable and creative. Strongly influenced by Western art, including expressionism, he developed a school of ikebana that was deeply rooted in Japanese tradition, yet embraced the evolving requirements of the modern age. Sogetsu quickly developed a world class reputation and a worldwide following as many of the world's most celebrated international artists — Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Sam Francis, Niki de Saint Phalle, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Isamu Noguchi and George Mathieu — became collaborators at the school.
As a result, ikebana became more sculptural. In some cases, flowers are not used at all, but are replaced by scraps of metal paired with dried branches and leaves.
Teshigahara, the fourth family member to lead the school, is the daughter of the previous headmaster Hiroshi Teshigahara, the celebrated Japanese avant-garde film director and son of Sofu. Hiroshi took over the position after his older sister, Kasumi, died of cancer after briefly serving as Iemoto.
“As well as being a revered filmmaker, Hiroshi was also an amazing potter. He turned ikebana into something that was more refined, less about decoration and more about line and form,” said GuneWardena. “He also introduced larger scale arrangements, manipulating bamboo into different forms and splitting it into many pieces and weaving it to create large environmental installations.”
Hiroshi collaborated on set designs for the Lyons and Geneva opera companies and on the creation of a tea house at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
Akane Teshigahara, his daughter, who is doing the performance this weekend, took over from her father as Iemoto of Sogetsu in 2001 and added an even more theatrical element to the art, performing her first Ikebana Live show in 2008.
“Ikebana is arranged by putting your heart into it,” Akane writes on her website. “The charm of ikebana lies in the fact that the expression will be different depending on time, place, and person who arranges it in spite of using the same container and material.”
“The weekly practice is a peaceful thing,” GuneWardena says of his ikebana work. “Quite often when I don't have practice I find myself picking up things from the garden and then rearranging them while I have my tea and contemplate life.”
Despite its relaxing qualities, GuneWardena admits that creating an arrangement in a set time frame under the watchful eye of an ikebana instructor can be a little more stressful.
“The learning process never ends in ikebana,” he adds. “Even though I have been studying it for five years, I only just feel I am starting to uncover its secrets.”
In addition to Saturday's Iemoto Ikebana Live performance, other events designed for various levels of flower arranging enthusiasts, from beginners to advanced ikebana participants, will take place at the JW Marriott, Los Angeles, at LA LIVE and at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. Additional information and tickets are available on-line at www.sogetsu-la.com.