Christine Calfas, tiny taiko, big WHOOP

By Bob Hicks

That’s WHOOP, all upper-case. Small word, big noise.

Last time we wrote about Ten Tiny Taiko Dances it was first-gathering time, when everyone involved was meeting and hatching ideas. It was sort of like the first real date after the speed-dating hookup: everyone was pumped about the possibilities, but also just a little nervous and not sure what to do next.

Time flies. Today, as Mr. Scatter basks temporarily in a sunny little subtropical village dotted with palm trees (locals call it “San Francisco”), he realizes that suddenly this audacious collaboration of Mike Barber‘s Ten Tiny Dances and Portland Taiko‘s big bad sonic boom of drumming is almost upon us: Performances are at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Winningstad Theatre.

Who’d’a thunk Barber’s devilish little squeeze of a dance format (Ten Tiny Dances is performed on a 4-by-4-foot platform) would go out on a date with the extroverted Japanese American drumming of Portland Taiko? Christine Calfas, for one.

Christine Calfas in her attic studio, preparing to WHOOP.To see how this oddball matchup was shaking down, last Sunday afternoon Mr. Scatter putt-putted over to Calfas’s attic Studio 297.

We scrambled upstairs with crushed-mint iced tea and a highly attentive gray cat named Govinda, then sat by a low platform with a laptop computer on it and a drum set — it belongs to Joe Trump, Calfas’s musical collaborator on her tiny dance, WHOOP — in the background.

Against the wall, neatly arranged on a futon on the studio floor, an array of black-handled knives glinted softly in the light.

“I’ve been working with blades as images for a while,” Calfas explained, including a piece for last summer’s Richard Foreman Festival. WHOOP, she added casually, will include 88 knives (is it coincidence that this is also the number of keys on a piano?) “plus nine more knives, plus two circular saws.”

Time out for a little background. Calfas is a noted actor, in roles ranging from Shakespeare to the femme fatale roles in the technically tricky Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ earlier this year at Portland Center Stage, and she’s also studied traditional Indian dance in India on a Fulbright scholarship. She’s done several one-woman shows that fall somewhere between dance and theater, ancient tradition and contemporary innovation. That background seems to make her a natural for the cultural roll of the dice that is Ten Tiny Taiko Dances — a big mashup of taiko and non-taiko musicians and dancers, sometimes taiko and contemporary performers paired, sometimes taiko and taiko, sometimes contemporary and contemporary. Through it all are two constants: the bigness of the drum, the smallness of the stage.

“I was going to collaborate with a taiko drummer,” Calfas said. “But then I got this feeling about how we use drums in American culture. I just got this rock’n’roll feeling, you know?”

So she’s working with old friend Trump, a drummer whose eclectic background includes stints with psychedelic pop rockers King Black Acid, blues rockers Terraplane, and the Japanese instrumental improv rock group KIKI Band. “He’s in Japan twice a year,” she said. “He’s played with butoh artists; he’s heard taiko in Japan.”

OK. So what’s the WHOOP?

“When I started thinking about this … part of taiko’s history is that the drums were used in war. That image really stayed with me.”

Bring on the blades.

“When I was thinking of war, savagery, the impulse toward violence — I noticed that we tend to pit those dynamics against femininity or grace. Venus vs. Mars. That is a classical polarity, to be sure. But I’ve become interested in laying the two right next to each other, side by side in bed as it were, and seeing what happens. Like in Japanese cooking. You lay the elements out, make ’em look good, and then get the hell out of the way.”

In other words: Leave a little mystery for the audience.

Calfas thinks of the character she’s creating for WHOOP as “the ‘She’ of piece,” and in addition to being lavishly costumed against the bare stage, her skin will be powdered: “Physically, I’m interested in her looking like an apparition. She arrives, she’s there for a little while, and then she’s gone. In that sense it’s tiny. It’s evanescent.”

At one point in the conversation, a thought struck Mr. Scatter so strongly that he wrote it down, even though no one had touched on it in so many words. Remember those old school carnivals where you could toss a beanbag for a prize you could actually see, or you could fish instead for a hidden grab bag that might hold anything at all? Chance is a choice, and although her work is sharply crafted, Calfas often chooses chance: What will happen if I do this, and then this?

She also embraces tininess, the extreme limits that Ten Tiny Dances places on its creators and performers. Pieces are short, usually about 7 to 10 minutes. And of course, there’s that 16-square-foot stage: not exactly room for a Broadway chorus line.

One thing that makes Calfas consistently interesting as an artist is that she understands her strengths and weaknesses, and makes allowances for both. “I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said of the straitjacket that the Ten Tiny format imposes. “I’m a big fan of structure. I love structure. I’m in vastness mode by nature. Since I’m in vastness mode by nature, structure is my friend.”

And she draws consistently on her artistic peripheral vision, which easily traverses the boundaries of discipline. Indian dance, for instance, tends to be more centered in space than Western dance: a bringing-back in toward the body rather than a stretching out. That makes the tiny stage seem natural.

So, too, with the stage’s bareness, which turns the visual focus toward the performer and her adornment (Calfas will be costumed by Paula Buchert, with an elaborate headdress by Bonnie Henderson-Winnie). In Indian dance, Calfas said, “the costume is the set”; its fantastical nature provides an environment in which the dance unfolds.

As it happens, she’s also worked as an artists’ model, and the Ten Tiny stage is about the size and height of an artists’ model platform. “My solo dance work is mostly influenced by painting,” she said.

And as with a painting or a drawing, the entire space — in this case, the theater filled with people — is part of the art. “What is surrounding the subject — you have to be as in love with this as you are with the subject. If you’re not, it’s poor composition. What is the shape of the whole composition?

“I feel challenged. In seven minutes I have to work the whole canvas. The entrance, the exit — everything.”

Let’s bang the drum for that.


JOURNALISTIC TRANSPARENCY REPORT: As fellow Scatterers may recall, Mr. Scatter is a board member of Portland Taiko. He’s a board member because he believes in the company’s artistic quality and cultural importance. He won’t review a performance by Portland Taiko. He is eager to open a window for his readers on the inner workings of a group he supports.