Watsonville Taiko celebrated their 6th anniversary with performances October 10th and 11th at the Cabrio College Theater. These anniversary concerts are Watsonville Taiko's biggest, and most polished, performances of the year. This year they played to an enthusiastic crowd, close to capacity on Friday, but filling only half of the 500 seat theater on Saturday. The audience who did attend, however, got a glimpse of Watsonville Taiko's new artistic direction, along with some energetic Taiko playing and a few special guests.
Staking out an ambitious theme with the first half of the show, Watsonville Taiko re-enacted the Japanese creation myth. For those who are not familiar with it, the story goes: The First Gods send Izanagi and Izanami, the youngest God and Goddess, to complete and solidify the drifting land below the Plain of Heaven. Decending on the Heavenly Floating Bridge, Izanagi dips his Heavenly Jeweled Spear into the brine, and the drops from the tip of the spear form an island called Onogoro. The pair erects an heavenly pillar and a palace, and give birth to the Japanese islands and a slew of Deities. Izanami is burned badly giving birth to the Fire God, and dies. Izanagi follows her to the underworld, but flees, horrified. In bathing to purify himself afterwards, the three most important Japanese Deities spring into existance: Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess; Tsukuyomi, God of the Night; and Susano-o, the Wind God. Susano-o behaves badly and upsets Ameterasu, who hides in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. The Gods consult and decide to hold a festival, which is so raucous that Ameterasu peeks out to see what the noise is about, returning light to the world.
This program marks out important new creative territory for Watsonville Taiko. Conceptually, the creation myth provided a handy framework for the group to expand into other forms of expression beyond the Matsuri style of drumming that Watsonville Taiko started with. Watsonville Taiko has obviously put much thought and energy into its vision of the creation myth, and incorporated dance, pantomime and theatrical elements into the powerful drumming to help create a "total performance." There are some areas that still need to be realized more fully, such as the narrative flow, but most of the new elements, including the Okinawan flavored drumming and dancing, were quite nice.
The second half of the performance was more of a mix. Watsonville shared the stage with guest performers Zambra, a women's ensemble performing world music (who also provided offstage voicing for part of the creation myth), and high school student Ailin Naomi Conat who performed a monolog telling a Japanese Fairy Tale. Watsonville Taiko, for it's part, returned to it's roots with this half of the show, unlimbering their joyful energy for it's own compositions and the perennial favorite Yodan Uchi. This half had great variety and nice pacing.
Being a Taiko group, Watsonville Taiko is going to be judged first and foremost on it's drumming. The Creation Myth features all original composition by Artistic Director Ikuyo Conant, and it is still a work in progress. The second half featured two other original compositions. Ms. Conant does a good job of creating varied compositions for the program and moves from ensemble playing to duet/trios with comfortable ease. By taking advantage of the wide variety of playing styles and stands in Taiko, as well as utilizing the voices of smaller drums and other percussion, she keeps her pieces fresh and compelling. She is also capable of writing interesting roles for the shime-daiko, a generally under-utilized instrument.
However, some of the pieces had sudden downshifts in tempo which I thought hobbled the otherwise driving power she created. These downshifts, instead of being arresting, were overlong and overemphasized, and they seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the audience. If Ms. Conant can sharpen these tempo changes, the audience is in for an explosive charge that will propel the music to a satisfying conclusion.
The members of Watsonville Taiko are composed of a small core which is committed to performing, as well as a larger segment of community members. Watsonville does a good job of utilizing both segments in their performance, unlike many Taiko groups. While there were a few bobbles in the performance, Watsonville Taiko came out and played well, and the lead players were provided an opportunity to show their chops with short, tasteful solos. Artistic Director Conant in particular attracts attention with her barely restrained energy, that seemed ready to boil over at any moment. Along with the core members of the group, she anchors the group and pushes them forward.
However, perhaps because of the large amount of new material, there seemed to be a slight lack of confidence among the players noticeable during the first half. This translated into a slightly subdued stage presence that will surely disappear as Watsonville Taiko fleshes out and become intimate with the material. The boisterous energy Watsonville Taiko usually exhibits returned with the second half, and they got the audience roaring with their rendition of Yodan Uchi. That song also had a bit of brilliant staging showcasing their children's group, which gave the adults time to set up and move drums unnoticed.
This being Watsonville Taiko's first experience with a production of this magnitude, there were several technical problems that could be chalked up to inexperience, perhaps especially dealing with the stage personnel, such as curtains not closing at the right time. On the other hand, some other problems could have been easily avoided, such as one of the performers having a drum head that buzzed badly during his solo.
While Watsonville Taiko has done an admirable job of bringing the proto-history of Japan to the stage, the production still needs fleshing out, and there were various technical problems that hampered the enjoyment of the show. Overall, the show was pleasurable to watch, as Watsonville Taiko projects good energy and a lot of fun, even through a somewhat restrained first half. If this show is a promise of things to come, then the completed Creation Myth should be a performance to see.
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