May 29, 2012

REVIEW: Shifting Sand | Glen Street Theatre, Sydney

To beat with every muscle, bone and sinew in our bodies, with an open and joyous spirit. That, it appears, is TaikOz's mission statement. The wonder is that the group would seem to

Shifting Sand | Glen Street Theatre

To beat with every muscle, bone and sinew in our bodies, with an open and joyous spirit. That, it appears, is TaikOz’s mission statement. The wonder is that the group would seem to achieve that objective for its audiences, as well as itself, with every powerful, passing performance.

The outfit has certainly proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, Japanese drumming has a future and a following well outside Japan. TaikOz has been banging and striking since 1997 and over the ensuing decade and a half has garnered quite a reputation as purveyors of dramatic, dynamic performances. And very loud ones.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple or unidimensional as that. When I say dynamic, I don’t only mean in the colloquial sense. The TaikOz crew might be pounding out deafening beats one minute, but they’re just as likely to go all delicate and zen on you the next, showing how slowly, softly and evenly they can play. That’s the moment you’re likely to hear the calming tones of the bamboo shakuhachi, which certain among their number also deploy. It’s ancient, and contemporary; thumpingly, resoundingly visceral, and meditatively blissful; and all at once. It’s east meets west in the most thrilling of ways.

At first, it mightn’t seem that subtle, but the exceeding discipline involved soon becomes apparent. Philosophically, as you might expect, it’s all about integration of body, mind and spirit and it’s quite obvious total focus is required. Not to mention an athletic aerobic capacity, the equivalent of about fifty years of pilates, planks and pushups. Wadaiko (the act of traditional Japanese drumming) may have many forms, but it’s a surety all make immense physical and mental demands.

But if TaikOz were to merely appropriate traditional Japanese music for an Australian audience, while it might have some mind-expanding educational benefit in its own right, it would be a little like backpackers lobbing in the central desert and stealing the art of didjeridu-making and playing. And it would likely have quite narrow appeal, in any case. So it’s just as well TaikOz has a loftier aspiration. For, while their music misinformed by the rigorous disciplines of wadaiko, they have set out to impart a local accent, by way of creating new music, sometimes by international composers but also, as in this case, by Australian ones. in practice, TaikOz has stepped well outside, above and beyond the already broad confines of wakaido, through its manifold collaborations, with everyone from revered and renowned choreographer, Meryl Tankard, to photographer Regis Lansac; from orchestral composer, Gerard Brophy, to actor and theatre director, John Bell; percussionist-composer, Michael Askill, to the likeminded Tim Constable; classicist, Graham Koehne, to theatre composer, Andrea Molino. And more.

This catholic approach, which also includes partnerships with eminent Japanese composers, has ensured freshness and vitality all these years. Taiko have been augmented, as well as with shakuhachi, by shinebue, nokan, voice, marimba, sax, didj, guitar and all manner of struck and shaken things. Not only is TaikOz global compositionally and collaboratively, they’ve taken their Australian brand of Japanese drumming to Japan, France, Thailand and Taiwan. And now, Belrose, hovering in the trees above Sydney’s northern beaches.

Not only is Graham Hilgendorf an Aussie, but a member of TaikOz, who has singlehandedly composed a suite entitled Shifting Sand, which honours his abiding and undying love for all things oceanic. Apparently, he’s an accomplished surfer, so that should come as no surprise. As well as being singlehandedly responsible for writing the work, Hilgendorf is responsible for design and choreography, too. Josh Emanuel’slighting design plays an important, mood-setting role, even if the smoke wafting across the stage prior to the performance set off the alarm and resulted in the audience being ousted, while the firies did their thing; which, after all, is quite theatrical in its own right). Masae Ikegawa has collaborated on costume design, which has resulted in an array of garments, in which the performers look, variously, like black ninjas, karate dans, or two-toned swans.

This is a full-blown theatrical production, introduced by artistic director, Ian Cleworth, at some length, which very much transcends assembling a few supersized drums on stage. Every aspect has been thought through aesthetically, even dramatically and comedically, and is presented in what amounts to a series of scenes, or vignettes.

Since the ocean is, on the one hand, so predictable, in terms of tides and yet, utterly unpredictable, in terms of capricious and dangerous ‘moods’, Hilgendorf has sought to chart this schizoid character through instrumental, vocal and theatrical impressionism and, very largely, succeeds. One of the most overwhelming, elemental forces to which we are subject is, thus, ascribed majesty; mastery; relentless, wanton, indomitable power. It can swallow us, or bear us lightly; destroy, or subdue us. It can inspire us with the veritable fear of God, or move us to poetic expression. It all came about when Ikegawa and Hilgendorf were engaged in an extended study tour, in Japan, in 2005, far removed from the coast.

Hilgendorf found resonance (no pun intended) between the latent dynamic potential of taiko and the ocean: both can whisper, or roar. More than that, there’s even parallel in the range of motion required in the practice of wadaiko: sharp and angular; voluptuous and graceful. And so the work begins with a kind of philosophy.

There are six scenes in all, beginning with A Stormy Ride and concluding with Spirits Rising. Those titles might tend to suggest some hippie, trippy thematic disposition, but the work, a virtual concerto, has both depth and lightness, including an almost Chaplinesque competitive interplay between three drummers, at one point.

At times, you’ll be mesmerised by the sheer degree of difficulty; whether leaning back, in a seated position, to pound the massive wooden taiko, or concentrating on barely audible, yet metronomically correct, taps. You’ll be amused. Engaged. Compelled. Amazed. But, mostly, you’ll be exhilarated and hankering to beat the living daylights out of something, preferably a big-arse drum, like TaikOz do. Hilgendorf and co cap a distinguished career with Shifting Sands, confirming TaikOz’ unique place in the spectrum of world music.

Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so!

The details: Shifting Sand played the Glen Street Theatre on May 17-26.

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