Crash, Boom, Badass: Taiko at Dance Mission

Taiko Dojo drummers at Dance Mission Theater. Photo by Yichen Guo

Complete with ferocious women flailing drumsticks as long as their arms, loincloth-clad men, a lion dance, and the sonic power to make your heart rumble, San Francisco Taiko Dojo is bringing tradition and pure fun to Dance Mission Theater.

“It’s stunning,” said taiko first-timer Mariah Landers. “I wasn’t expecting this level of dance and drama and motion.”

The group drumming style showcases the musicality of the barrel-like instruments, as well as the coordination and discipline of their players. Taiko drummers dance and leap among the drums, often rotating from one to the next in dizzying patterns without once disturbing the lilting yet powerful rhythm.

William Hallows, another audience member who had never seen taiko, was taken aback. “It’s very fun. And intense,” he said.

He’s absolutely right –  at times more than a dozen percussion instruments were being played at once, producing a sound almost too large for the performance space at Dance Mission. While the inspired performers of Maikaze Daiko call Dance Mission Theater home, the student corps of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo could barely squeeze onto the stage with their drums. At times, the higher-pitched percussive instruments rang out shrilly among the din.

But the performance is riveting nonetheless. Kenneth Clews, a Dance Mission Theater regular, said he finds himself at once invigorated and relaxed by the spectacle, drawn in and moved along by the beat.

“You can’t sit still, your whole body is moving in a festive way,” Clews said.

Though it might feel like the performers are pulling out all the stops with the resounding first act, the momentum of the show builds and recedes and builds again to a crescendo with “Tsunami,” a Taiko Dojo original composition featured in the 1993 Sean Connery film “Rising Sun.” The performers flow from short, expressive hisses and soft drum strokes into exuberant shouts and a beat that takes their whole bodies to keep alive. The compositions are like conversations between the massive instruments.

“You can tell there’s a deep study of the craft,” Landers said.

At the same time, the performers never take themselves too seriously. They smile and laugh and throw themselves into their music with gusto, sending the occasional headband flying. Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, a venerated figure in the American taiko community, slipped through the ranks of his disciples as they played their encore piece, doling out high-fives. One performer, having given his post at the drum to another mid-song, gave his relief drummer a friendly slap on one bare buttock. He didn’t miss a beat and the raucous, celebratory show went on.

If you go, look out for a special performance by the Master of Ceremonies in which her humorous spark is really lit, and keep an eye out for the banana trick. Audience members who find the rhythm infectious can explore the musical form for themselves by taking classes with Maikaze Daiko at Dance Mission Theater or at the Taiko Dojo in Japantown. Taiko for Tomorrow will run Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. Both performances are booked full, but a wait list is established at the box office and wait listed guests are often accommodated.

Photo for this story courtesy of Yichen Guo

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One Comment

  1. Diane Lewis

    I live in Wisconsin and watched the drumming performance on line. My nephew, Ross Lewis, is a drummer. This is his first year and he thoroughly loves it. It was incredible to watch and listen. I was amazed and hope to be there in person someday.

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