Friday, 25 September 2015

Performance Report: Hatsudai Awa Odori

Hatsudai shares an unusual detail in common with the main Tokushima event that very few of the other Tokyo festivals do, and I've yet to work out exactly why that is. For some reason, it always takes place over the same two days, regardless of what day of the week they fall on. They're both public holidays, which helps of course.

Unlike the main Tokushima festival though, it also uses a varient spelling of "Awa Odori" in the festival name, that you would need to really be on the ball to spot. The preferred spelling is "阿波おどり", whereas Hatsudai uses the more conventionally correct "阿波踊り".

What's the difference? Well, to the branding conscious, rendering the "Odori" part in hiragana is the more pleasing choice, as it binds it inseperably to its "Awa" component, as part of a proper noun. Rendering the "odori" part in kanji + okurigana, like Hatsudai does, is the default for most text input systems, but it also serves to separate them into two distinct words of equal stature.

The knock-on effect of this is that the preferred rendering really puts the emphasis on "Awa"—it's not just a dance, it's the AWA dance; the alternative rendering removes that emphasis, turning the "Awa" component into a mere adjective for a common noun—this is a dance from the province once known as Awa. The difference is very nuanced, very slight, and I'm not sure why we care so much about it.

But we do.

This one came out fine!
Photo: Yuko Yamazaki
Hatsudai is also fairly unusual in that it only has one performance space—a relatively long at 300 meters high street where all the performers begin at the top and end at the bottom, before returning to the top via the backstreets and doing it all over again. The road is fairly wide compared to similar festivals, which gives us a lot more room to move and swing our dead cats around. It's also lit by ten light poles which are in the middle of the road, which is fine if you're moving in two columns, but can cause logistical issues when moving in threes. Apparently they're a blessing and a curse for the cameramen—they provide a convenient hiding space that allows them to photograph from within the performance space without getting in the way (or being told to move by staff), but as the light poles have quite a high colour temperature compared to the rest of the lights, they often end up with blue foregrounds and orange backgrounds, or vice-versa depending on which direction they point the cameras.

After the parade portion has finished, all the teams take up positions along the road, separated by the light poles, and perform a set piece for 15-30 minutes.

This year we performed on the second day, and started two light stands from the goal line. That gave us a nice casual warm up, and also meant we didn't need to fight for our stamina while also giving our best performances.

Our second run, which was from the top, was somewhat less easy. The teams in front by ripple effect were jammed solid, which kept us from moving for quite long periods of time. We ended up performing our parade set piece a total of six times in one run—three would be a lot under normal circumstances. Thankfully the weather was cool enough that nobody collapsed, but it was touch and go for a couple of people.

The long time spent on the wide parade ground did give me plenty of opportunity to try out some new material though, which I think I have well polished now! Unlike the onna odori, otoko odori have remarkable freedom to individualise their dance, and this is something I like to take full advantage of. And while it looks fairly random, it's more a case of having a repertoire of patterns of varying lengths which I'll sprinkle into the regular dance as the feeling takes me. If people are never quite sure what you're about to do, it keeps the dance more interesting I find.

However, it's important to distinguish between randomly selected patterns and actual randomness—the moves need to be both decisive and precise, almost like a series of carefully crafted poses, only the motion between them is of no less importance. And the key to this is practice, and practice with a critical eye!

My new power jump is still a work in progress, so will return to that on another occasion.

Well, that's the final Tokyo festival of the season for us anyway, but we still have more to come. Next month we'll be performing at the Yoshiwara-juku Shukuba Matsuri down in Shizuoka. We also have a couple more volunteer performances in the pipeline to look forward to. While that's going on, we're finally resuming our practice schedule starting on October 3rd, and already have a number of new members eager to get started!

Performance Report: Green Port EBISU

This facility for the elderly near Ebisu Garden Place is another of our regular guest spots—they often invite us to perform at their "Respect for the Aged Day" festival in September, and we're always happy to oblige!

One of the difficulties with this particular venue is that the performance takes place in a rather oddly shaped room. It's actually more like two rooms joined by a fairly small opening, and it's near that opening that we have a wide but shallow stage area to perform in, to two sets of audiences. That means we have to perform 1 dimensionally, in multiple directions, if you can get your head around that. Thankfully it was a little deeper this year so we could perform in 2 dimensions our normal routine without too much of a hitch.

The other issue we had this time was an absense of any melodic instruments. We had to rely entirely upon the drums and gong, which isn't easy for some of the more complex routines. Most of us remember the routines by time as well as melody though, so it wasn't a problem there so much. It just, can't have been that interesting to watch.

The audience seemed happy enough though, and I rather got the impression that most of them could only really hear the drums anyway, so I'll chalk that up as a partial success.

Next stop is Hatsudai Awa Odori on Wednesday 23rd. This is the last of the regular season's events, and it always gets a good audience turnout of other team members for some reason. After that we still have a couple of performances by special request, one as far as away as Shizuoka.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Performance Report: IM Japan

Though not quite as surreal as the performance we gave in May at a rakugo event, playing the part of some kind of corporealised voices of the underworld, our most recent performance at IM Japan on Sunday 6th was certainly something a little different.

The information we had to work with was that it was at the Indonesian Embassy School, and that the guests were visitors from overseas, in Japan for research purposes. They'd wanted some traditional culture to be added to the line up, and that's where we came in. When we arrived, you can imagine our surprise to see some 500 odd young Indonesian students crammed into a school hall, each of them wearing hachimaki around their heads.

Not to be perturbed, we got on with our preparations as per usual, but the atmosphere was a little more tense than usual. We're used to seated audiences of around 50 tops, and this was ten times that. And normally our audiences don't look like they're in the middle of militia training. What is it about a hachimaki that does that I wonder...

The previous week, the otoko odori had tried something a little different, adding a slow section in the middle of our usual routine. The music had been the Tokushima folk song "Iyano Kohiki Uta", performed on flute. As it had worked out so well that time, I decided we should do it again, only this time one of our most senior members, a Tokushima native, volunteered to sing it instead. We don't normally have vocalists, but many teams do, so sure! What could possibly go wrong?

Eventually it was time to begin. The people who had the stage before us were a pop group comprised of very young and energetic girls, who'd got the audience whipped up into a frenzy, which meant we could either ride that enthusiasm, or destroy it. Our entry, right through the middle of the crowd who had parted like the Red Sea, was very enthusiastically met, which was a very good sign.

There were some minor problems of course. 500 people crammed into a school gym hall meant it was very hot, it wasn't until a few minutes into the performance that somebody realised that 99% of the students couldn't see anything and got them all to sit down, and the mics were giving quite harsh feedback for a while. Overall it was a successful show though.

When it came to the new part, there was a slight delay while our singer struggled to find a mic that worked, but not enough to give any sense of unease. I would like to make that a part of our regular routine, but it may be better to stick to the flute. We'll see.

Finally, we had our dance class section where we teach everybody the moves. That would normally involve getting everybody to dance in a big circle around the room, but with that many people, it clearly wasn't going to go well. In the end, they all moved on the spot while we milled about among them. They seemed to enjoy it.

Next performance is in a couple of weeks, a volunteer performance at an old people's facility, and our final regular festival of the season at Hatsudai.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Performance Report: Shinjuku Awa Odori

I managed to get my outfit washed and dried, just. It was a cool weekend, which made Koenji very comfortable, but was less than ideal for laundry.

So today was the second time we'd been invited to perform at Shinjuku Awa Odori, a popular Tokushima themed restaurant with live shows every night. Under normal circumstances, the Koenji Awa Odori Association teams would perform there in rotation, but as they were all tied up for the weekend, they reached out to some other 'seicho' teams to fill in. Remember how I mentioned preferential treatment?

Unlike regular festivals, this was a private performance which customers were effectively paying to see, so it comes with a different set of considerations. The performance space is quite narrow which meant we had to limit our numbers. We only had about 5 minutes of actualy performance time, and had to schedule in time to teach the dance, give out prizes, and create a photo opportunity for anybody that wanted to be seen with us. The order of proceedings is all decided in advance, which allowed us only limited flexibility, but that's in no way unreasonable. They have a pattern that works, and it's up to us to accommodate it.

As our usual routine is about 10 minutes long and we only had 5, we had to rethink it a little. We quickly got changed into costume and that left about half hour to figure it all out. We were all experienced members though, so it wasn't hard to find 5 minutes worth of fat to trim.

Shinjuku Awa Odori
This much space
Space considerations were another factor of course, but we could mostly work around those by being really careful.

By 18:30, we were ready to go, and pulled off the partially improvised routine with little issue.

We did feel it was a little lacking though, so we revised and reinstated some parts during the break between performances. By 20:30, we had a solid idea of a much better routine, which went smoothly... for the most part.

Well, there was a miscommunication beween one of the dance parts and the musicians, that left them waiting for a cue that never came. It was unfortunately quite awkward, like 25 seconds of dead air on the radio. Still, once things got back underway, I'm sure the audience forgot all about it.

After the 20:30 performance had ended and a prize for best dancer had been awarded to a happy audience member, the secondary room out back had several tables of guests seated, so we repeated the process back there for their benefit. Rather than performing on a single stage though, it had two stages spaced a couple of meters apart and a moderately wide isle, which brought a whole new dimension of space consideration. With a little thought though, it practically rescripted itself, and we were able to perform the entire piece without a hitch.

With both part 2 performances, dance off, awards, and photos finished, it was already 10 o'clock, so I honestly don't know where the time went. It was overall a very good experience though, and the closeness we all felt with the audience was much more pronounced than at festivals—it was like hanging out with old friends, almost.

Next performance is next Sunday, by invitation of the Indonesian Embassy!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Performance Report: Koenji Awa Odori

Koenji Awa Odori, as you most likely already know, is the largest festival of its kind in Tokyo, and this year was its 59th birthday. Each year, the number of teams and performers have been steadily increasing, making it by far the most diverse in style. Of course, it's also increasingly crowded, which can make it quite frustrating for spectators who face difficulties finding somewhere from which to view it, and even more difficulty in getting to such a spot.

As performers, we're mostly shielded from the crowds, but it does also mean being paddocked in to a large extent.

Koenji Awa Odori
A good turnout
This time, we had a number of special guests from Tokushima Yebisuren who flew in especially to perform with us. Among them were 5 otoko odori, 2 onna odori, and 2 shamisen players—it was nice to hear the shamisen again, as all of our own are temporarily assigned to drums, quit, or missing in action. Of course, this meant we had to prepare and bring along 9 extra costumes, but that was a very small price for the value they brought.

Four of my temporary teammates were people I'd trained and performed with in Tokushima quite recently, and the other I was already friends with from years back, so this made it much easier to get everybody organised. Everyone on both sides was cooperative and helpful, and I think the sense of solidarity came across in the performances.

One of the things I like in particular about Koenji is that several of the stages are modelled after the Tokushima stages—wide enough to move, and "jumpers" heavily discouraged. I saw the festival staff dealing with people who were encroaching on the performance space quite harshly on a number of occasions, which is most likely in the name of safety—all participants this year had to sign up for a mandatory insurance, but I don't know if this was a result of something happening during a previous year or not.

But I digress, the widest stages tend to have the most enthusiastic crowds, so we like to show them something special if we can. Because of the sheer numbers of teams though, any team that stops to perform a routine causes a caterpillar effect holding up all the teams behind, so it's been heavily discouraged in recent years. As it turned out, some space had opened up behind us at all the larger stages so we were able to stop and give a short set piece without causing a fuss. Similarly, as we approached the final goal point, I checked behind us and there was a space of maybe 30-40 meters open, so I gave the signal to perform an "abare" routine, a very high paced wild dance with jumping and shouting which is a huge crowd pleaser. Typically we start from a triangular wedge formation, and when the music speeds up we all run in different directions, leaping into action. Always nice to give the audience what they want!

Update: It seems a Mr Philbert Ono captured the precise scenario I just described on video.

We managed to complete 5 stages in total during the three event hours, but the final whistle was blown as we were preparing to begin a 6th. I was happy with the 5 we performed though, and the presense of our guests really motivated us and raised the bar of our individual performances.

We finished by taking our guests out for a celebratory dinner, which ended the day on a high note. Early departure for me though as I had to get my costume cleaned and dried for the next day.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Koenji Awa Odori & Shinjuku Awa Odori

After a fairly quiet couple of weeks, we have another two day weekend starting tomorrow.

Saturday evening from 5 o'clock it's Koenji Awa Odori: three hours of parade style performance, with spaces ranging from super wide Tokushima style stages to narrow poorly lit backstreets. This year we have some special guest performers joining us.

Sunday evening at 18:30 and 20:30 we're performing at Shinjuku Awa Odori, a popular izakaya-style restaurant that has live shows each night. Also, good food and drink at a reasonable price, so drop on by, though you may wish to phone ahead as it fills up quickly. I did say it was popular!

One of the hardest things about a double packed weekend like this is not the muscle fatigue so much as the preparation. Washing, drying and ironing an entire ensemble of costume parts is surprisingly time consuming. Just as well it's summer—hanging them out at night pretty much guarantees they'll be dry by morning, and we have a very effective dehumidifier in case of rain.

Costume is a whole blog post by itself, and one I plan to go into at a later date. Needless to say there's something of an art to it, and it's certainly a lot more involved than putting on a shirt.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Performance Special Report: Tokushima with Ebisuren

As I'm sure you all know already, the main Awa Odori event in Tokushima takes place between 12th and 15th August, rain or shine. This year, by special invitation, I was able to join in the festival in the garb of one of the biggest name teams in the country, Ebisuren!

Ebisu vs Tokyo Ebisu Outfits
Can't deny there's a similarity...
As the name may suggest, there is some connection between Ebisuren and my own team, Tokyo Ebisuren. They've certainly made themselves available to provide advice and assistance over the years, but there's currently no formal affiliation, which is what made the invitation something of a big deal for me. In the nearly six years I've been learning Awa Odori, the opportunity to perform in Tokushima with Ebisuren as one of their own has been something of an ambition I've had from the start.

Now, Tokushima is pretty far away, and at the height of its tourism season it's not easy to find accommodation, and especially not of the reasonably affordable type, so we ended up entering via Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture, staying in a kind of local varient of a bed and breakfast the first night, a shrine the second night, and flying out of Tokushima on the final day. This meant I got to perform on 13th and 14th.

And probably just as well I didn't stay longer. It was absolutely exhausting!

But from my limited two days of experience, I noticed a number of significant differences between the main Tokushima festival and the various Tokyo festivals, which I'll briefly outline in no particular order as follows:
  • Parade grounds are much shorter, wider, well lit, and the audience are seated. Mostly they're situated in riverside parks. Despite the shorter length, I found them to be much more exhausting, which I put down to a number of factors: the shorter length meant I could concentrate my efforts rather than pacing myself to preserve my strength; there was room around me to move—Tokyo performance spaces are often quite cramped allowing insufficient room to give a full performance range; audience expectation was very high, as was the level of expertise of all my team mates, and I certainly wasn't going to let the side down.
Plenty of room, and check out those whites—kind of bluey white...

  • Number of performances are fewer than in Tokyo, despite the longer time frame. Some Tokyo festivals have us perform up to 7-8 times within a two hour window. In Tokushima we only performed 3-4 times over a four and a half hour period. This meant there was a lot of time to enjoy the festival as a festival, eat food from the stands, drink beer, chat with other guests etc. A lot of the time was spent carrying drums from one end of the city to the other, which was really quite tiring though.
  • No water. This was a big deal for me. It meant I was burning through money trying to stay hyrdrated.
  • Team captains dance at the front. This may only apply to the big name association teams, but there's an expectation that team captains will lead the procession behind the giant lantern. This just isn't seen in Tokyo.
  • 徳島新聞写真映像部
    I'm in there somewhere...
    Photo: Tokushima Shimbun Shashin Eizobu
  • Soh odori. The very last event of each evening is a grand finale called the soh odori (general dance). Here, a whole bunch of the association teams parade through together, filling the performance space entirely. It's impressive to watch, and it's always the sounds of the many many shamisen that gets me. What's less well known is how chaotic it is behind the scenes as people with megaphones are trying to get everybody in with some kind of dignity. As I'd gone from having a third of the width of a performance space to myself to only a sixth, it did feel more like a Tokyo festival. Very cramped! One cute detail is the ritual of "cleansing" the performance space before the finale. This is done by a local university team called "Rererenoren" who are modelled after a very minor character in a long running popular cartoon series. It's a curious dance they do, and this year they were accompanied (perhaps unwittingly) by one of the best Awa Odori flutists I've heard, from about 1 minute in on the above linked to video. 
  • Wa Odori. This is similar to the set pieces we have in Tokyo. Everybody forms a large circle and the performers come on in groups and do a part each, but it seemed to me to be more relaxed, more like the B side of a record. There's a lot of humour to it, and a lot of trying out of new material to see what works. Generally it's a lot of fun. I was suddenly asked to perform with the rest of the out of towners for one section, with the instruction to play it by ear. That seemed to work out ok.
That's most of the chief differences. All in all it was a great experience, and one I can hopefully bring some lessons back to Tokyo from.

Calling it a night

My next performance isn't for another couple of weeks now, Koenji Awa Odori on 29th August. Returning the favour somewhat, several members of Ebisuren will be joining us in our costumes, to help give our team a little more impact. Which ones they are you will have to work out for yourselves.