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Dance Review Print

Japan Comes to ECU

February 4, 2002 - Greenville, NC:

On February 4, the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at ECU presented Warabi-za, a music and dance troupe based in Akita, Japan, which is appearing in only six venues in the US on this tour. The group, founded by Taro Hara in 1951, started out with only three members, but twelve performers plus backstage help were on hand for this presentation, and this is only a small part of the total current membership that includes five performing groups and maintains a folk-arts research center and archival library.

The program was divided into two parts, the first entitled "Life on the Sea and on the Land" and the second, following intermission, "Prayers and Festivals"; each had eight numbers. The opening number was a spectacular drumming display by two soloists. This was followed by a graceful dance depicting fishermen hauling nets while singing a chant-like song. Next came an equally graceful dance by women carrying baskets for the fish and celebrating the large catch, accompanied by a female vocal soloist and a shamisen player. The shamisen is a three-stringed banjo-like instrument with a very small sounding chamber that is often struck after or while the strings are plucked, so the percussive sound thus covers the sound of the strings. There followed a solo performance by a male dancer whose movements suggested martial arts moves and positions. Then came another peasant dance depicting sowing and hoeing a field, with offstage music. A solo on the shamisen by the female player followed, and was followed in turn by a solo dance by a female with a fan and parasol, with drum accompaniment, reminiscent of the type of dance that is our stereotypical image of Japanese dancing, Another spectacular drumming number concluded the opening half.

The second half began with a dance by women ostensibly portraying flowers and accompanied by a female vocalist, a bamboo flute, drums and small gongs mounted horizontally. Next came a dance by women holding round plate-like trays that was the most circus-like of the evening in its display of quasi-juggling skill with gymnastic-type movements and positions. This was accompanied by drums, small hand-held cymbal-like instruments and the bamboo flute. There followed another solo male dancer celebrating longevity, followed in turn by a stately dance of women done in memory of their lost husbands. Then came the most elaborate and colorful dance of the evening with men dressed as deer entering down the aisles and performing extravagant movements to seek a good harvest. It brought to mind Native American ritual dances.

There followed a number by two dancers playing drums as they moved in circular fashion, depicting two birds expressing their love for each other. Next came another predominantly musical number with numerous drums of different types, shapes and sizes, the bamboo flute, and the shamisen, and a chant to excite the harvesters, all accompanying two elegant female dancers. The program closed as it had opened with another spectacular drumming exhibition celebrating the harvest. The depictions of the dances on this half of the program were much less self-evident from their very movements to the Western spectator than those of the first half but, at the same time, they were far more complex and demanding of the artists.

The troupe offered two additional numbers in response to the warm reception given them by the audience which rose to its feet almost before the last notes had died, just as it had frequently begun clapping before the individual numbers were completely over throughout the evening. The first of the offerings was another musical number featuring drums, gongs and bamboo flute; the second added to these the shamisen and a female vocalist.

Each musical and dance number had a different set of costumes, most of which were very colorful and likewise drew upon past traditions in their designs and fabrics. Footgear was uniformly simple cotton stockings, usually white. Sets and props were minimal; often there was merely a backlit scrim with curtains opening and closing in front of it. Lighting was cleverly used to create shadows on the side walls of the hall in several numbers. It was not always clear to me if music produced off stage was live or recorded. In one number I heard a koto (a dulcimer-like instrument) but I never saw that instrument on stage.

Amplification was used throughout the evening. I personally felt the music was a bit heavy on the drums with the more lyrical, melodic sounds produced by other instruments like the koto in short supply, and this became tiresome over the long haul. I was also struck by the martial-arts-like movements the drummers used to strike their instruments with what looked more like large, thick dowels than drumsticks, and by the variety of sounds they obtained when striking the skin, the rim or the wooden side of the drum. Even the movements of the playing itself were ritualistic, and some of the playing seemed to suggest demonstrations of prowess, especially in the spectacular drumming numbers. Indeed, it is quite a feat to play a drum while leaping around, as was the case in several dances.

Classical music in Japan does not have the same sense at all that it does in the West. It is much more closely associated with folk traditions, and it is intimately bound up with dance movements depicting activities of daily living and religious rituals, which together have evolved into an art that is theatrical almost in the way ballet or opera is. Yet, at the same time, this art form is a far cry from Western folk music traditions, and from Western opera as well, because it is far more stylized and dramatic. Thus, this was not a classical music concert in anything like our sense but rather an encounter with classical Japanese culture in a not un-authentic theatrical kind of presentation. It was an attractive, entertaining, instructive and enjoyable evening. The S.R.A.P.A.S. presenters are to be congratulated for their boldness and vision in including such a performance on their series. They are also to be commended for the quality of the program notes, which are essentially an "all you ever wanted or need to know about Japanese music, dance and theatre" in a nutshell, worth saving for future reference. Information was included about the troupe, the individual numbers, the musical instruments and the dance and theatre traditions, including for completeness some that were not demonstrated in the performance. The Internet sites used to obtain the information were credited. For more information on this company, visit http://www.warabi.or.jp/English/ [inactive 11/04].