Taiko drum and dance performance celebrates Japan

Justin Toran-Burrell/The Phoenix

How can one express enthusiasm, appreciation for life or a sense of perseverance? This past Sunday evening at Lang Concert Hall, 44 Japanese students from Tamagawa University brought a taste of their culture to Swarthmore College, with drums and Japanese music. Through a total of ten pieces, they painted a romantic picture of cherry blossom petals falling, revealed the power of wind in the mountains and expressed a strong sense of optimism and positiveness.

“I hope to convey the feeling of energy and spirit,” Isaburoh Hanayagi, the choreogarapher and director of the performance said. Hanayagi believes that especially for the performances in 2012, a year after the Japanese earthquake, it is important for the performers to represent the revival of energy within Japan.

The performance consisted of kumidaiko, “a modern form [of Taiko drumming] developed after WWII as part of a broader mission for many Japanese people to recover a past national identity lost to militarization and Westernization,”said Professor Kim Arrow of Swarthmore’s Dance department, said. Arrow had been invited to Tamagawa University to choreograph a contemporary dance work for their dance majors in 2003. Arrow, in turn, invited the group to perform at Swarthmore College and they have been performing here ever since 2003.

Justin Toran-Burrell/The Phoenix

Swarthmore College and Tamagawa Univeristy have established a sisterhood and, according to Arrow, there are a number of interactions between the two institutions: a large number of master-classes and workshops presented by Tamagawa Arts Faculty for Swarthmore students in Dance, Taiko, Theater, and Print-making; a gift of 14 taiko drums was given to the Music and Dance Program; and the creation of “Afri/Japan,” an international project connecting Japan and Côte d’Ivoire, a country in Africa. “They consider Swarthmore College and the Dance Program and Department of Music and Dance as their home away from home,” Arrow said.

This annual performance is presented not just at the college, but also at a number of universities and festivals in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. “There are many reasons that the audience loves this work,” Arrow believes. One of the things that attracts the audience to this performance is its professionalism. A flawless combination of both Taiko drumming and Japanese folk forms of dance, the performance “cannot be considered a school production, but rather a professional one,” Arrow said.

This professionalism comes from not just the performers’ impressive musical skills, but also their intensive practice and hard work. Nagisa Togashi, a dancer for the concert, spoke about the group’s practice hours. In the three months’ preparation, they practiced from seven in the morning to midnight every day. “They, therefore, are able to, and do, compete with professional companies at taiko competitions and consistently come in at the top couple of percentage marks,” Arrow mentioned. Togashi has been dancing ballet since she was four, but didn’t begin to study Japanese dancing until she entered college. Because of her late introduction to this form of dance, to understand what each movement means in Japanese traditional dancing was one of the challenges she thinks many other performers in the team and her all had at first.

Hanayagi also hopes “to convey contemporary and traditional culture of Japan to local audiences” through this performance. He would like the foreign audience who might not have heard of this kind of music before to be able to appreciate it and be impressed by it. From “Eisa,” a traditional folk dance of Okinawa Prefecture, one of Japanese southern prefectures, to “Gunjoh-odori,” one of Japan’s three biggest Bon festivals, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors, the performers painted a number of pictures through dancing. Through the performances, people can imagine young people parading in their neighborhood to honor ancestors; people living during the feudal period coming to the Bon festival regardless of their social class; and young women dancing to lift the spirits of the villagers during a long and harsh winter. The concert concluded with a piece composed by participating students, entitled “Ren,” which expresses a hope for world peace.

The concert hall was crowded with a large audience that evening. For some, it was their first time seeing the Tamagawa students perform. Ted Fernald, a Swarthmore Linguistics Professor, felt the dancers’ exuberance. “The whole performance was very energetic and the sound was wonderful. I saw some things that I have never seen before,” Fernald said.

For some other audience members, the performance was a more familiar one. Claire Sawyers, the director of the Scott Arboretum, comes to see the performance every year. Sawyers used to live in Japan a long time ago and was very impressed by the costumes of the performers, their professionalism, enthusiasm and creativity. “The one with the ‘umbrellas’ was a very different piece. It seems so strong and beautiful at the same time,” she said.

Yoshiko Jo, a Japanese professor at Swarthmore, believes performers will benefit from the team work, improve themselves through the intensive practice and enjoy the joyful feelings of accomplishment. “They can also experience study abroad and see American culture and people, which will broaden their eyes”, she said.

This sense of energy, professionalism and creation displayed in the performance provides listeners a chance to not only feel this different type of music but also experience Japanese culture.

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