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Performances in April

TAIKOPROJECT and the Fort Wayne Civic's The Road to Mecca

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Drumming Up a Storm
The FW Dance Collective brings the acclaimed TAIKOPROJECT to Fort Wayne

“It’s just a lot of very loud drums on stage, with movement,” laughs Bryan Yamami, the leader and founder of TAIKOPROJECT, when asked how he explains to the uninitiated what taiko is and what his group does.

And while that’s certainly true, Yamami’s joking description hardly does justice to the visual and auditory spectacle of a TAIKOPROJECT performance; it’s about “loud drums with movement” in the same way Titanic is about a big boat that sinks.

The Fort Wayne Dance Collective is brining TAIKOPROJECT to Fort Wayne for a three-day residency that includes a performance at the Arts United Center on April 17, as well as educational lecture/demonstrations with schoolchildren, workshops for local taiko drummers and taiko enthusiasts, and a demonstration during the Cherry Blossom Festival on April 18.

Basically, taiko combines thunderous drumming — and yes, the drums are very loud, and very big — with precise choreography that at times can verge on the acrobatic. “You’re playing a song and doing choreographed arm movements, and/or dancing from drum to drum while you’re playing the rhythm,” says Allison Ballard, founder of Fort Wayne Taiko. “The point is that the movement is an integral part. In a lot of drumming, like African drumming or Middle Eastern drumming, you’re primarily sitting and playing with your hands, and though you’re building a lot of energy and it can be a really incredible, invigorating, rhythmically satisfying experience, you’re body isn’t really engaged. You usually remain at the same drum. In taiko you’re just all over the place.”

Taiko has its origins in Japan (taiko is the Japanese word for drum), where it’s been used traditionally in religious and folk festivals. But Yamami says that the modern style of taiko that you’ll see in a TAIKOPROJECT concert is actually pretty recent. “It started being used as a performing art form about 50 years ago,” Youami explains. “The more modern elements, the concert aspects have been around about the same length of time in Japan as it has been in the US.”

Yamami says that he started taiko when he was about eight years old, though it wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed doing at the time; his parents made him do it as a cultural activity. “It was just something I did,” he says. “I play soccer, I go to boy scouts, I go to taiko…”

It wasn’t until he got to college and started playing with another group in LA that he really started finding a deeper meaning in it. “Once I got to college, it started to mean more to me culturally and artistically,” Youami continues. “It was something that I could connect to culturally, but also something I could use as a means of artistic expression. I could be based in the traditions, but also innovate and create my own thing.”

And that’s just what Yamami did. TAIKOPROJECT includes elements of hip-hop dance, particularly in its team choreography. There’s also an influence in there that may not be apparent on the surface, but Yamami insists is a part of their performance. “I grew up in upstate New York, and I probably went to over a dozen Phish concerts,” he laughs. “While the rest of the group isn’t influenced by Phish, I really was. In their heyday, they were really being innovative with their concerts, with their ability to involve the audience. I try to put a little of that in there. “

Since Yamami formed TAIKOPROJECT in 2000, the group has garnered a huge amount of acclaim. They’ve soundtracked commercials and in 2009 performed at the 81st Academy Awards in a medley featuring songs from Slumdog Millionaire.

But probably one of their most important achievements happened in 2005, when the TAIKOPROJECT represented American taiko at the 4th Annual Tokyo International Taiko Contest, the first American taiko group to participate in the event. They took home the top prize in the Adult Group category, the first American taiko group to win the contest.

Yamami says that despite the fact that takio in its modern form developed concurrently in both the US and Japan, and these days bears little resemblance, in either country, to its traditional roots, sometimes US groups are seen as inauthentic. It’s not a view point Yamami seems to have much patience for. “I think we grew up in a very fortunate time, where we can combine the American and Japanese influences,” he says. “We’re not trying to be a Japanese group. We’re proudly incorporating our American influences. There are over 150 taiko groups across the US, and we’ve created our own culture and style here.”

One of those 150 groups is Fort Wayne Taiko. Founder Allison Ballard says she was blown away by a performance of a Vancouver taiko group when they came to Fort Wayne in 1992. “I was just so drawn to the movement component of it,” Ballard says. Ballard began to study taiko, in some cases traveling to work with taiko masters on the west coast. Eventually, she started Fort Wayne Taiko, but with very limited resources. “We started by building our own instruments,” Ballard says. “It took us about two years to figure that out. For a long time, we worked on tires.” Now associated with the Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Fort Wayne Taiko was, until recently, the only taiko group in Indiana.

Once again, in taiko the movement is just as important as the music. Many taiko performances are tightly choreographed, though Yamami says that some of the pieces TAIKOPROJECT perform leave some room for improvisation. “Many are very tightly choreographed, but there are some where the general movements are given, and the dancers are asked to expand on top of that, to make it their own,” he explains. “But every group does their own thing. Some groups do less on the visual and try to expand the musical, rhythmic elements of it. There’re a million reasons to bang on that drum.”

And of course there’s a lot of technique behind all that on stage spectacle. As Ballard describes it, the sounds and movements of taiko incorporate seemingly endless combinations of strikes, drum placement, drum size, drum angle, stance… even the drum stick (bachi) etiquette seems pretty involved. Ballard gives an example: “Say you’re in the ‘front stance.’ You’re incorporating a strike that involves the arm bending when you hit the drum, and then the arm extending straight when you come up, and then landing in different positions. That strike creates a circle effect, a wheel effect.”

“It’s hard to describe, but when you see it happen, it’s very beautiful,” she adds.
Indeed, the whole point of the technique is to create something that looks perfectly natural, and create something that elicits an almost primal response from the audience. “Being drums, rhythm, it’s a very simple type of music, but it’s something everyone can relate to and feel something from,” Yamami says. “You can really feel it in your entire body when you’re watching, and when you’re playing, too.”

The Fort Wayne Dance Collective presents the TAIKOPROJECT
Saturday, April 17, 8pm
Arts United Center
303 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 adults
$20 children
$30 at the door
(260) 424-6574



Welcome to the Owl House
Civic’s The Road to Mecca looks at what it means to be an “outsider”

A bizarre and somewhat unsettling sight greets visitors to the remote South African village of Nieu Bethesda.

Out on the middle of nowhere, miles away from any major city, a house on the outskirts of a village is surrounded by a large and elaborate collection of cement statues. Buddahs, camels, owls peacocks, mermaids, and many, many other figures — hundreds of them — crowd the yard, many of them facing east.

They’re the work of Helen Martin, an elderly Boer woman who began creating them after her husband died. These days, the garden of sculptures and statues is often called “the Owl House” and is a popular tourist attraction in the area.

But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, as actor Joan Goldner — who portrays Ms. Helen in the Fort Wayne Civic’s “Off Main” production of The Road to Mecca — describes it, the people of Nieu Bethesda saw Ms. Helen’s flowering of artistic expression relatively late in life as a sign of madness. “If your neighbor, this person down the road, someone who has been a ‘perfect’ wife and gone to this community church every Sunday, all of a sudden started creating these big sculptures of strange creatures in the yard, you’d start to think ‘she’s gone off her rocker’,” Goldner says.

Helen’s art is on display inside her house as well. The walls are covered in glitter and candles are everywhere. “There is a lot of back story, how when Helen was a little girl she was afraid of the dark, and light and candle light seemed to signify safety,” says Goldner.

“She starts to get these creative pictures of odd things and feels compelled to create,” Goldner adds. “The sculptures are made out of cement and wire. She had to actually bend wire and mix sand into cement to make her sculpture. She ground beer bottles to make glitter on the walls, and the eyes from the owls are all headlights from automobiles. This is someone who had not exhibited anything like this until she was maybe 50 years old.

The Road to Mecca (1987) is playwright Athol Fugard’s take on Ms. Helen’s story. The time is 1974, some fifteen years after the death of Helen’s husband, and an accident, along with concerns over Helen’s age (she’s in her mid-60s) and her increasing isolation, have brought things to a crisis. The village minister, Marius (Larry Bower), is pressuring Helen to move to a nursing home. Marius’ concern is sincere; he really does care for Helen. A lot. But Helen is obviously resistant to the idea of giving up her independence, and asks her friend Elsa, a young teacher some 30 years her junior, to come and help her and lend moral support.

“(Elsa) is a very strong, independent woman and appreciates that quality in others,” says Gloria Minnich, who plays Elsa. “She thinks she finds a kindred spirit in Miss Helen.”

The basic set-up to The Road to Mecca may seem pretty typical — convention vs. freedom; society vs. individuality. In fact, the writer Athol Fugard plays often tackles some big themes in his plays, especially apartheid and race relations. Apartheid is not addressed directly in The Road to Mecca, though of course it’s there (it’s a bone of contention between Elsa, a progressive, and Miss Helen, whose take on race relations is what one might expect from a Boer woman in her mid-60s in 1974 South Africa).

But Fugard is after something more subtle and, in its own way, more ambitious. At the heart of The Road to Mecca, which Time magazine included among its “Best Theater of the Decade” at the end of the 80s, is a story of how difficult it is to be true to yourself, especially if that means becoming the outsider.

All the characters are in engaged in that struggle in their own way. Elsa has recently gone through her own tough time with the end of a relationship. She also got in a little trouble at home in Capetown. “She’s a very liberal teacher,” says Gloria Minnich. “The schools were segregated in South Africa then, and Elsa teaches at a ‘colored’ school. She asked her students to write a letter to the president on the subject of racial inequality…” and her superiors didn’t take kindly to that.

The minister Marius is genuinely concerned for Helen: after all, this is a woman who dependably and reliably came to church with her husband every Sunday for decades. She not only stopped coming to church, but has turned her yard into this bizarre sculpture garden.

And Helen isn’t quite the bold, independent woman following her own path as Elsa sees her. She craves her independence and the freedom to create her art, but her arthritis is getting increasingly worse, and she worries about being able to take care of herself. Besides that, she’s extremely lonely. “Helen tries to explain to (Elsa) how alone she feels,” says Joan Goldner. “She’s afraid her creativity isn’t coming to her anymore. Elsa sometimes challenges her, because she doesn’t understand why it has to be this much of a problem.”

One of the questions that hovers over Helen throughout The Road to Mecca is whether she hasn’t “lost it,” if only just a little. Helen herself sometimes wonders. “She says at one point ‘at a period of my life when I was very low, I got these visions and I had to do something’,” Goldner says. “Is she crazy? Are these visions? You can go a whole bunch of different ways.”

“I’m a firm believer that Helen is not crazy,” Gloria Minnich says. “Throughout her life, she was a good wife and good woman in the community. She was able to express her artistic vision, and that didn’t conform to what society expects of her. Elsa is concerned she might not be able to take care of herself, but wants her to live in her home and still create her sculptures.”

Fugard is often praised for writing strong female characters, and both Minnich and Goldner site the rich and intricate portraits of Elsa and Helen as one of the main reasons they were interested in taking on the roles. “I’ve been in a lot of Civic shows, but not in recent years,” says Goldner, adding that she mostly did musicals and that her last “serious” play was Three Tall Women at First Presbyterian Theater five or six years ago. “It has to be a really good part to lure me out of the house, and this was. Every night at rehearsal I tend to find something new about Helen.”

But as any actor will tell you, the great roles are often the most challenging ones. Minnich says that one of the most difficult aspects of Elsa is preventing her sometimes strident idealism and anger from overwhelming the character. “It’s definitely a trap I can fall into,” says Minnich, whose recent stage credits include Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Arena Dinner Theater and the Civic’s “Off Main” 5 in 1, a collection of plays by Christopher Durang. “We’ve been really aware of trying to make the most of the lighter moments. Elsa is very down to earth. There’s a lot of anger and sadness in her, but there’s also a lot of joy. It’s just that when we meet her, that joyfulness that is a normal part of her personality has kind of been squashed a little bit.”

“But all these characters go through so much to be true to themselves,” Minnich adds. “It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s something that you have to be constantly aware of. These people go through that journey and emerge strong in the end.”

The Civic Theatre Off Main Presents The Road to Mecca
Allen County Public Library Auditorium
Fridays and Saturdays April 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17 at 8 pm.
Sundays April 4, 11, & 18 at 2 pm

Tickets: Adults $15; Ages 23 and under $10, Sunday Sr. Matinees $12.
Box office (260) 424-5220
Business Office (260) 422-8641 x221

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