Ten Tiny Taiko Dances: the first steps

Life comes at you in waves, and before one wave pounds against the rocks another one’s just beginning to rise toward its crest. Arts groups in particular know this universal truth: While you’re busy smacking against the shoals of one opening night, several others are already gathering strength.

"The Great Wave Off Kanagawa," from "36 Views of Mount Fuji," by Hokusai; between 1826 and 1833. Wikimedia Commons.Portland Taiko‘s 2010 season begins this weekend with Saturday matinee and evening performances of The Way Back Home, featuring songs from last year’s CD Rhythms of Change. By the time it hits the stage this wave of sight and sound is going to be polished and shaped and sure of itself, like a Katsushika Hokusai print.

That’s this crest. While it was racing toward the shore, a group of almost 20 people met last Friday at Portland Taiko’s warehouse home just off industrial Northeast Columbia Boulevard to start the process toward the next big taiko wave, a collaboration between PT and Ten Tiny Dances that will play June 19-20. I was there in dual roles, as a journalist and a taiko board member. Here’s a taste of what happened:

“When people think of Portland Taiko they think of vast spaces with huge amounts of power,” says Michelle Fujii, PT’s artistic director. “And this is just the opposite of that.”

She isn’t kidding. The sound of taiko drums, born in Japan and modernized in the contemporary fires of North and South American performance troupes such as Portland Taiko, can be small and sensitive but tends toward the big and propulsive. The whole idea behind Ten Tiny Dances, which head honcho Mike Barber began at a wine bar in 2002 in what he thought would be a one-off, is to minimize. Each performance (this will be the 20th public series) consists of 10 short dances performed on a four-foot-by-four-foot platform. It’s all about compactness and discovering a fullness of expression through extreme limitations — like a haiku, or a rhymed couplet. So this collaboration promises to be something of a Mutt and Jeff: a meeting of attractive opposites.

“What happens when things get restrained?” Barber asks. “What does it bring out?” Everyone in the room — mostly choreographers, composers, dancers, musicians — seems pumped by the possibilities. As odd as this matchup may seem, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing for the collaborators. Plus, it has its internal logic. Fujii has a background in Japanese dance and has made movement a strong focus of Portland Taiko’s style. And something radically different, Barber says, is just what his popular dance project needs: “After 20 times, to bring fresh edges to Ten Tiny Dances is great.”

Cydney Wilkes and Mike Barber dance small in a previous Ten Tiny Dances.Byron Au Yong, the Seattle composer who’s worked with Portland Taiko before, arrives with a score already in hand. He passes copies around the circle: it’s elegant, intricate notation.

Composer Heather Perkins, who is working with Barber, has a different approach.

“We made up a score the other afternoon,” Barber tells the group.

“Oh yeah,” Perkins says, and holds up a dense furious scribble in her notebook.

It’s the beginning of what’s looking like a very intense wave. Barber has bounced back and forth between narrative and non-narrative approaches, he explains. Right now he’s thinking non-narrative, with taiko as the heartbeat of his dance — “and the idea I’m working with is anger.”

Perkins has been listening to PT’s Rhythms of Change CD and calls it a sexy sound: “It’s beautiful. And I want to do something that’s not beautiful.” Maybe put contact mikes on the drums, she muses, and send the sound through something electronic. “Rhythmically it’s going to be more … fast. Angry.”

A gathering like this is partly reunion, partly meeting new collaborators, partly throwing out ideas, partly anticipating technical challenges, and all about the next great adventure. Especially if you’re more used to first meetings for play productions, which have a literary script to focus everyone’s attention, it can seem vague. Dance and music, unless they’re recapitulations of pieces already in the canon, start from more elemental, often emotional, ideas. Everyone in the room has done some thinking, even some planning, before this meeting, but things are still speculative and broad-stroke. “I feel really open,” says choreographer and dancer Carla Mann, “because I’m very interested in collaborating.” She just knows she wants to do something intimate rather than grand.

Portland Taiko in concert. Photo: Copyright Rich Iwasaki, 2003What exactly does that four-by-four-foot platform mean? How do dancers, let alone musicians with big drums, fit on it, let alone stay on it?

At points in Ten Tiny Dances’ history, Barber has had strict rules. Everyone on the platform. Dancers allowed to step off for up to 15 seconds, and no farther than one foot offstage. The rules, he adds, didn’t last long: “I realized that the rules weren’t as important as the heart of the idea, the integrity of that four-by-four space.”

The looser approach can be liberating conceptually as well as physically.

“Could it be that musicians could be onstage but not dancers?” Mann asks.

“Yes,” Fujii and Barber add in unison.

Aha. A possibility is born.

Other possibilities: Angelle Hebert and Phillip Kraft of the dance troupe tEEth are considering “precise chaos. We’re thinking of creating this violent but precise violent” piece, which would be videotaped and played back in slow motion.

Fujii and choreographer Suba Ganesan, who works in the southern Indian classical dance form of Bharathanatyam, are exploring what Ganesan calls “this ancestral thing that we both seem to have” — Indian and Japanese traditions. Her question: “How do we work with these ancestral traditions while being respectful in our innovation?”

Taiko member Toru Watanabe will somehow work with masks that artist Rick Bartow made for the company during a collaboration last year, and the masks will somehow tell a tale: “I was Japanese folk dancer, so I know how to use dance in taiko.”

Au Yong is working with the number 15, because this is Portland Taiko’s fifteenth season. The number contains mathematical and musical possibilities, various rhythmic and structural components. As he was thinking about the number, he read a Newsweek report about 21st century slavery, about girls being sold in South Africa, where the World Cup will be played in June, when this performance will take place. “So that began to put a human face on the number 15. If your body is taken away from you, how do you survive?” For all that, he adds, “musically, I want this to be a very quiet work.”

Seems like a big wave working up steam. As time permits I’m going to try to ride inside the curl, and let you know what it looks like from the wet and wild side.



— “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” from “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” by Hokusai; between 1826 and 1833. Wikimedia Commons.

— Cydney Wilkes and Mike Barber dance small in a previous Ten Tiny Dances.

— Portland Taiko in concert. Photo: Copyright Rich Iwasaki, 2003.