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Ten years of taiko at the MCA

Tsukasa Taiko’s drum-and-dance doubleheader marries classical and contemporary forms—from Japan and Chicago both.

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Taiko is remarkable for its emphasis on the entire body. Performers set their legs in wide stances to strike oversize drums, but even at rest they're tense, like human metronomes ticking on mute. This energetic physical engagement situates taiko as dance—and it's a key point of technique for the musician Tatsu Aoki and his group, Tsukasa Taiko, now in their tenth year of an annual showcase at the Museum for Contemporary Art. Gathering artists from Chicago, San Francisco, and Tokyo, Taiko Legacy 10 celebrates traditional Japanese forms—such as Fujima Shunojo's kimono dancing, where a flickering fan might represent the moon reflecting on a lake—as well as newer dances based on ancient motifs. Reduction is a sampler of the Japanese fusion styles that bubbled up from postwar experimentation with jazz, blues, and swing; it also delves into avant-garde improvised forms, performed here by Ayako Kato.

Aoki's ongoing project—combining Japanese music and Chicago jazz—is potentially ripe for incongruity, since Eastern and Western styles can elicit such varied emotional responses. Taiko was used in shrines to produce trance states; the repetition in jazz is more likely to make you bop to the beat. Yet once taiko drummer Eigen Aoki establishes a rhythmic pattern, jazz percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang skillfully transform the classical sound, loosening it up, speeding it along, and highlighting its flexibility and power. The result is surprisingly seamless, even once a larger group of taiko drummers join in, dancing around their drums and coordinating arm movements that make them look like wires on the circuit board of a meticulous machine.

Correction: This has been updated to reflect that it's Fujima Shunojo, not Melody Takata, performing the traditional fan dance.

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