Pound for pound, Drum TAO delivers a world-class performance
Catching up from the weekend:
How do you describe the way a drumbeat can fill and overwhelm you? Such a moment is easy to experience but tough to articulate. Chalk it up to being human. One of the first uses of percussion was to rally warriors to battle, and it’s easy to see why. A drum is a natural jolt to our nervous systems.
Thanks to the taiko drummers of Drum TAO, the acclaimed Japanese troupe that made a stop on Saturday night at the Saroyan Theatre, I felt as if I’d experienced drumming on a higher level. With impeccable musicianship, flowing choreography, top-notch athleticism and a healthy dose of wit, the company made a lasting impression. Five impressions from a pounding good show:
It’s all about the buildup. By increasing tempo and volume, drummers can make your heart rate soar. Or at least feel like it. (And, thus, the war connection.) Early in the show, which was titled “Drum Heart,” three drummers lined up in front of the biggest taiko drums in the show — which looked as big as aircraft engines — and whacked at them with long, long drumsticks. The drums were stacked pyramid style, and it reminded me of the front of a train. As the intensity increased and the dramatic lighting intensified, it suggested a steam engine lumbering out of a station.
The staging was superb. There were only two women in the show, and (curiously) they mostly performed by themselves in separate scenes. (I don’t know if that’s a traditional Japanese thing.) My favorite visual of the evening: One woman wore a flowing red dress with a long and gauzy train, and when she picked it up and flung it in the air behind her, it seemed to float through the smoky light like a billowing, peaceful jellyfish, (Again, the lighting design was exquisite.)
Personality was paramount. For an art form all about precision and conformity, the drummers brimmed over with individual appeal. Some were goofy, others stern, one was an exaggerated sad-sack, and a couple of the younger ones exuded bright-smiled, boy-band personas. What made it work was that despite the various personalities, the drummers all clicked into the same ultra-accomplished stage presence when it came to the show’s high-octane moments. The synchronicity of the drummers was a wow factor in itself.
I loved the fun-in-the-dark routine. The stage went completely black, and what we didn’t know at first is that five drummers had lined up in front of the curtain wearing bodysuits delineated with green LED lights that could flick on and off, creating bright green outlines of human figures. When the green lights went dark, the drummers would quickly shift positions for the next tableau. The amazing part was the split-second timing. At one point each drummer struck a pose that suggested a phase of the well-known evolutionary depiction of mankind (starting from crouching on all fours and progressing to a full upright posture), and those bits of captured frozen motion danced across my retinas. The amount of physical coordination — not to mention having to get into perfect position in total darkness — must take many hours of practice.
The turnout was disappointing. The Lively Arts Foundation brings great, world-class acts to Fresno, and Drum TAO was no exception. I just wish more people could have seen it. In other cities, Drum TAO sells out. It could be that way here, too. But for the audience members that did get to experience this remarkable company, they really seemed to get the beat.
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