Portland Taiko: Stay Hungry

Portland Taiko charts a new course with "Insatiable"

Portland Taiko premiered "Insatiable" last weekend.

Portland Taiko premiered “Insatiable” last weekend.

Even before the lights came up, it was clear that this wasn’t your typical Portland Taiko show. The first eerie, metallic sounds emerged from the darkness, and then the stage illumination revealed a small ensemble of dance/drummers resplendent in spiffy new black and red stage costumes, a change from the more prosaic blue working outfits seen in past concerts.

The rest of ensemble’s hour-long premiere of “Insatiable” at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last weekend felt just as different from the troupe’s usual sequence of several separate, 5-8 minute long, varied sketches, usually featuring plenty of smiles and audience engagement. Although divided into scenes, “Insatiable” is definitively a single piece, punctuated by a few blackouts and linked by smooth transitions, with recurring rhythmic and choreographic elements. The quintet of performers and all their instruments never left the stage (effectively maintaining continuity), never addressed the audience, and in fact spent part of the show with their backs turned toward us, facing the back curtain as they sat and drummed.

Conceived and choreographed (or “created,” as the program says) by PT artistic director Michelle Fujii, “Insatiable” is at once a more conceptual and more theatrical creation than I’ve ever seen the company essay. As much performance art as dance, the show subtly suggests its meanings rather than explicitly delineating them – no surprise to anyone who saw Fujii’s intriguing if elliptical solo dance/installation show “Choking” at Interstate Firehouse Theater a couple years ago.

Other novel elements abounded. After an abbreviated preview performance last month, Fujii described the Japanese folk dance influences she incorporated into “Insatiable,” which she wove seamlessly (and probably to many viewers imperceptibly) into the choreography. Along with the usual large and small drums (sometimes played surprisingly softly), the concert also featured Fujii sometimes plucking a koto (the Japanese zither); whispered snippets of unintelligible Japanese phrases; and an arsenal of metal percussion instruments (energy chimes, alarm bells, and a recycled missile shell). Fujii said her use of metal bells was inspired by her January trip to tsunami-ravaged Onagawa in Northern Japan, whose town bell somehow survived intact, and whose sound now signals hope of rebuilding.

However, “Insatiable’s” most memorable moments were visual, including a sequence featuring a straw hat/mask that completely one of the dancers’ heads; a riveting duet in which the two whirling dancers alternately struck the same drum; another new set of handsome white and red costumes (both sets of new duds were designed by Jacqueline Davis); and finally, inventive use of a long red, ribbon-like cloth connecting the dancers, some of whom whipped their mallets against nothing but air overhead. It provided an effective metaphor for the positive and negative sides of our connections to others. Though eschewing explicit messages, “Insatiable” displayed a discernible narrative arc, and clearly, it’s a work at least partly about relationships.

Yet for all the innovative ingredients, as its title suggests, “Insatiable” left me wanting more, in both the positive and negative senses.

Since Fujii arrived at PT in 2006, the group has steadily evolved into less of a niche music ensemble and more of a dance troupe that ingeniously uses its powerful percussors as elements of its movement-based theater. It’s a welcome, risky, and promising direction for the company, but it does involve a learning curve for both audience and artists.

Although it packs many moments of PT’s signature musical power (including the yells and punchy rhythms of traditional taiko, despite the fact that these are all new compositions), “Insatiable” often exchanges the group’s usual frenetic energy for more ruminative, even ritualized moments that seem closer to kabuki theater than to athletic modern dance. In her post-preview talk last month, Fujii noted her increasing appreciation for silence as an element of composition (shades of Miles Davis), but the elusive, sometimes diffuse “Insatiable” occasionally stumbles with static stretches in which too little of interest is happening – thematically, musically or choreographically – to sustain its forward motion, and others whose full import never quite survives the journey from its creator’s inspiration to the audience’s understanding. Of course, every audience member will draw the line between enticing mystery and frustrating obscurity differently.

But while the group will only grow more adept at communicating more clearly its complex ideas to the audience through movement, design and other theatrical devices, PT’s ambitious new direction is already paying artistic dividends. Even if we don’t know exactly what it all signifies, “Insatiable” radiates the kind of evocative power that more superficial if more immediately graspable performances never could. As much as I’ve enjoyed PT’s previous concerts — and it’s one of my favorite Portland performance ensembles — I haven’t always found myself needing to see certain pieces again. They were exciting and fun and that was fine; I pretty much always knew what I was going to get at a PT show. But I definitely want to give “Insatiable” another taste, not only because of what I didn’t quite apprehend, but also because of what I did. And now I’m not quite sure what will happen on stage in their concerts – and that’s exciting. Now that we’ve glimpsed what exalted aspirations Portland Taiko may be capable of achieving, maybe it’s OK that neither the audience nor its creators are yet quite satisfied.

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