Form and function in Taiko Drumming

Stage review: Taiko Drum and Dance at Kennedy Theatre

Story by Karleanne Matthews
Photos courtesy of Kennedy Theatre


Kennedy Theatre’s 2013 Mainstage dance production, Taiko Drum and Dance, gives new meaning to the term “dance concert.”

“We will provide our audience with bold, innovative movement coupled with big, beautiful sound,” said concert director Peggy Gaither Adams. And, indeed, the dancers and musicians are so well integrated in this production that it’s often impossible to say which are which.

The concert opens with “ʻO Kaua Pele I Haka I Tahiti,” a hula choreographed by Vicky Holt Takamine. The short, dynamic hula, which tells the story of the battle between Pele and her sister Nāmakaokahaʻi, is an apt choice, as the dancers chant and use the kālaʻau (long and short hula sticks), thereby functioning as musicians as well as dancers.

The rest of the concert – and the main draw of the show – is made up of the collaboration between the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance and the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. Endo, who is the first non-Japanese national to be honored with a natori (stage name) in classical Japanese drumming, has studied his craft for decades, in addition to receiving an master’s degree in music from UH Mānoa. He is also the artistic director of Taiko Center of the Pacific.

Not all audience members may be familiar with taiko, but this concert is a fast-paced introduction to the showy style of drumming. “Taiko [drums] … are used in religion, theater, festivals, folk music, dance accompaniment, modern music and group drumming (kumi daiko),” Endo told INhonolulu. “Because of their construction, handmade from natural materials, the sound has depth and spirit.”

Endo isn’t new to working with other art forms: “I’ve been collaborating with dance groups, theater groups and other music groups for many years,” he said. Gregg Lizenbery, director of the dance department, said Adams had the idea to collaborate with Endo and has been working on arranging it for over a year.

The potential for collaboration is showcased in “Midnight Moon,” choreographed by Adams to a score by Endo. For the dance, each of the 12 dancers learned to play the uchiwa daiko, or fan drum, traditionally used by Nichiren Buddhist monks. “The idea was to not be able to tell who was a musician and who was a dancer,” said Lizenbery. The performers balance their dual roles admirably, never sacrificing fullness of movement for their drumming. The piece is almost sculptural, using the shapes both of individual dancers and the group to create just enough visual interest without being overwhelming.

Another standout piece is “Yamamba De Koʻolau (Wandering Mountain Spirit),” with dance choreography by Betsy Fisher and drum choreography by Chizuko Endo. In this noh-inspired performance, dancers Genessis Ramirez and Chelsea Van Billiard draw energy from the drum ensemble that shares the stage and plug in to its precision while still showing a commanding stage presence – an impressive feat given how easy it would be to disappear in the mix.

The closing number of the first half, “Tatsumaki (Whirlwind),” is a showstopper. While the piece is performed by the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble without any UH dancers, it’s as visually oriented as any dance. What’s most striking about the style is its intertwining of form and function; the rapid, precise movements the drummers perform and the beautiful, strong shapes they create are certainly visually impressive, but they aren’t simply decorative. “My philosophy about movement in drumming is that it’s all about eliminating unnecessary movements,” Endo told INhonolulu. “This results in the sound and movement being one thing.”

One of the most interesting pieces in the second half of the concert is “Sosen (Ancestors),” a mash-up of traditional Japanese drumming and bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance style. The piece was choreographed by Sonja Sironen in a 2009 collaboration with Endo, and reconstructed by graduate student Rohini Acharya for the concert. The first section of the dance may run a little long for those not already interested in bharatanatyam, but leads up to some impressive solo work by Acharya.

The concert closes with “Threads of Aspiration,” choreographed by Adams and Kara Miller. The piece, though more typically “modern dance” focused than some in the first half, is a breath of air at the end of the fast-paced concert, featuring nine dancers performing expansive turns and leaps as well as more intricate movements.

My greatest criticism of Kennedy Mainstage productions has often been their near compulsion to layer multiculturalism or “a sense of place” onto virtually anything, no matter how disjointed or confusing the result. When I heard about the concept for “Taiko Drum and Dance,” I was afraid this might again be the case, but the concert doesn’t do that. Instead, it showcases the best potential of UH Mānoa’s Department of Theatre and Dance: East-meets-West style that isn’t forced, true collaboration with world-renowned local artists, choreography that uses dancers with a wide range of technical levels and yet manages to have each dancer contribute to the overall vision, and rhythms so infectious you’ll find it difficult to stay in your seat.

INhonolulu’s rating: 4.5 stars.
Get your tickets soon—the Sunday matinee performance has already sold out.

Taiko Drum and Dance
Kennedy Theatre Mainstage, 1770 East-West Rd. (University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa)
Feb. 15 and 16, 8pm; Feb 17, 2pm (sold out)
Kennedy Theatre box office hours: Mon–Fri, 10am–1pm
(808) 944-2697


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