Like other postindustrial countries, Japan has been faced with so much technological change, it could lose touch with its deepest traditions and roots. So it's made a concerted effort to go into the future by preserving the past.
One way has been to emphasize the art of taiko drumming, as can be heard today when the troupe Yamato makes its Orange County debut at the Performing Arts Center, as part of its first North American tour. The program is part of the Eclectic Orange Festival sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
"The drum was used traditionally in villages or in temples and religious life," said Bryan Yamami, programs manager at the Japan American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles. "For the past 30 years, they've been putting taiko in schools, as part of their cultural heritage."
The modern style of taiko drumming was developed in the early 1950s by jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi. It quickly became popular in Japan but didn't reach world notice until the taiko performances during the opening ceremonies at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
"That created this huge interest in playing taiko," said Yamami. "People tried playing various Western styles as well. From then on, there were a dozen different styles, some based on folk and local traditions, some that drew from jazz music and also more stylized and more choreographic avenues as well."
The Yamato group, based in Nara, was founded by Masaki Ogawa in 1993. The troupe took its name from the ancient word for Japan and Nara. The group includes men and women.
"Probably 30 or 40 years ago, that would have been unusual," Yamami said. "The drum represented the female aspect. Beating the sticks was the male aspect. The thought of a woman playing a drum was not acceptable. But taiko has become something men and women share equally. In North America, 60% to 70% of the people playing taiko are women."
Yamato will perform tonight at 8 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $15 to $35. (714) 556-2787.
New 'Appalachian Spring' Recast by Lois Ellen
Even choreographer Lois Ellen was apprehensive at the suggestion that she create her own version of "Appalachian Spring." Martha Graham's original was an icon of modern dance. Copland had written the score commissioned by Graham and originally called it "Ballet for Martha."
"I probably wouldn't have picked that myself," Ellen said in a recent phone conversation from her studios in Fullerton. "Hers was such a masterpiece. But Richard Rintoul at Cal State Long Beach, head conducting professor there, had a student who was getting her master's and he wanted to know if I would choreograph it because he was going to conduct it.
"I was very reluctant at first to do it. 'Oh, gosh,' I thought. Then I read in the New York Times that someone else had choreographed it, too. I did some research on Copland and also on Appalachia. That led me into the path I wanted to take."
The Ellen version is also about a young couple getting married, but there are differences, not least of which is the movement vocabulary--ballet versus modern dance.
"Reading Copland's notes, I found out the dance she had choreographed for the preacher, he had envisioned as a children's dance. I heard children's games in the music, too. The more I got into it, [it became clear how ] I wanted to go. They're leaving their adolescence behind. From my reasoning, the people were also playing games. Once they got married, it was very, very serious."
The musicians, under Rintoul's direction, will play the original chamber score for 13 instruments and will perform on stage along with the 15 dancers. "There's no pit there," Ellen said.
Also on the program will be her "Le Revue de Cuisine," choreographed to Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's 1927 jazz-flavored score of that name. The work is about "a crazy chef and kitchen utensils coming alive after he leaves," Ellen said.
Ellen founded her company in 1988 and turned it into a nonprofit organization three years ago to help obtain grants and outside support for her work. Her "Appalachian Spring" was funded partly from a $1,500 grant from Arts Orange County. (She also received a grant from Arts OC last year to choreograph a version of "A Soldier's Tale.")
Lois Ellen's Nouveau Chamber Ballet will dance her version of "Appalachian Spring" tonight at 8 at the Brea Curtis Theater, 1 Civic Center, Brea. $15. (714) 526-3862.