Monday, 1 August 2016

Performance Report: Kitamachi Awa Odori

Kitamachi Awa Odori is always met with a mixture of excitement and dread. The excitement comes from the not unreasonably long parade grounds that are sufficiently wide to allow a full range of theatrics, and the enthusiasm of the crowds who are actually really there to enjoy the event (as opposed to being merely inconvenienced by it as they make their way home). Add to that the large number of high level teams, and what could possibly go wrong?

The weather. Almost invariably, it is hot enough that people suffer heat stroke or dehydration, and I reminded my new members on several occasions leading up to it that they need to take active precautions against both in advance—if you feel thirsty/dehydrated/sick before you even begin, which is a very real possibility, then you're not going to have a good time. And if you collapse of boiled brain during a performance, then nobody else is going to either. When it isn't overly hot, it gets rained off by a freak rain storm that appears out of nowhere and drenches everything in seconds.

This year was not such a year. It was hot, sure, but there was a cool breeze and the humidity could certainly have been a lot higher. It was the kind of weather I felt confident we could cope with without anybody making themselves ill.

As per usual, we began with a set piece along the road near the station. Also as per usual, we had teams with ultra-loud percussion on either side of us, though the louder of the two was around a corner which shielded us from the worst. Despite this, any performers on the opposite side of the stage to our musicians could simply not hear, and were having to take cues by looking at other people's feet. This is unfortunately par for the course, and it's something that all teams have to contend with. Except, presumably, the really loud ones in question. I'm sure they do just fine, unless their dancers have an irrational fear of flutists for some reason.

The parade portions followed, and went more or less without a hitch. No missing persons, no major roadblocks... On the contrary, we had to skip ahead at one point because too much of a gap had opened up ahead of us. Moving at speed is not one of our strengths unfortunately, so we could have handled it better, but it's nothing I'm going to complain about.

And it was also nothing that the "judges" were going to complain about either. They saw fit to award us the curiously named "Hustle" award! I will not be fielding questions as to what exactly the prize was for at this stage.

An honorary mention should be made of the outstanding job the local scouts did at one of the water stations. They served barley tea which was very tasty and very very cold, and did so more proactively than I've seen at any other event. They had people with trays of the stuff all the way up the road, offering it to us individually as we passed, so we didn't have to walk quite as far to be refreshed. It was hot enough that the extra effort they put in was very much appreciated!

Next weekend has two festivals—Nakameguro on the Saturday, and Nabeyoko on the Sunday. Saturday should be something of an adventure, as we'll be taking little'un along for the ride.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Performance Report: Kyodo Matsuri

And with the blink of an eye, it's a year later and our first festival performance of the season, Kyodo Matsuri.

This was quite a nervewracking performance for a number of people who aren't me, because no less than 8 new members were giving their debut performances. Admittedly, two of them had quite significant experience in famous Tokushima teams a long time since, but the rest were all new. Three of them were in my section, which meant that for most of the day I was needed constantly in a number of different places at once, which was made all the more tricky for one of them having spent most of the preparation time shut away in the women's changing area.
Let's count them together...
The ever-present takahari,
found in all the best Awa pictures
Still, the preparations went largely smoothly, including putting together the takahari, also known as a long bamboo pole with two giant paper lanterns at the top, the team's banner as it were. This sounds simple enough, but it's a 15 minute job for about 5 people, with 1 more person standing nearby "supervising". A former team captain likes to make a show of swinging the takahari around a lot during the parade portions, so the lanterns really need to be clamped down tight by a process that everybody manages to forget after nearly a year in storage.

Like last year, and every other year before that, the performances were split into two parade strips which start at opposite ends of a long shopping street and meet in the middle, and a fully lit stage area for set pieces. The parade strip was also sectioned off later in the evening to be used for multiple simultaneous set pieces, where absolutely no consideration was given to the way the sound travels—it's very easy for a single team with a loud drum section to drown out 3 or 4 teams in each direction for the duration, and it happens more often than you might think. Still, that's part and parcel of the whole festival atmosphere.

The good
Our main set piece on the big stage was about 50 minutes into the festival, so we were sufficiently warmed up by then. Each of our three dance parts had many members present, and the practice we put into the choreography paid off well. We all moved very cohesively, with no missed cues and near perfect blocking, and the cheers coming from the audience were enthusiastic enough to let us know we were doing it right. Watching a video of it later, I have to say it's hands down the best public performance we've given to date. Let's see if we can keep that up for the remainder of the season.

The bad
A common problem we have at Kyodo is that the parade grounds are very very narrow, and we really need the space to move. As such, we were heavily constrained and couldn't do anything fancy. The crowds seemed to like us anyway, but it would have been nice to be able to show them more. Heavy congestion also meant that we were unable to move forwards either, stuck on a spot for several minutes at a time. Being stuck on a spot is a common problem at a lot of festivals.

The ugly
When you have a 37 strong team moving around on foot through backstreets, it can be a job keeping people together. This became something of an issue on our second parade entry, as we needed to start moving and two essential musicians had disappeared. They turned up after what seemed like an eternity but was in fact about two minutes, and everything was fine—they'd needed to stop and make some adjustments to an instrument— but I've taken the precaution of sending out a memo to the effect, "When a performance finishes, go straight to the waiting area of the next performance ground and stay there." That will hopefully avoid us a repeat.

All in all it was a good evening. There were no mishaps caused by new members which was no doubt an enormous relief to them, as it was for us also. Crowd reactions were almost entirely positive, including one old lady that approached me after our final set piece in tears thanking me for giving her some positive energy. Isn't that sweet. Next weekend is Kitamachi Awa Odori, which brings its own unique set of challanges, none of which are a lack of space to move.

Update: Friend, Tokyo Ebisuren fan, and fantastic event photographer Takanobu Yanagihashi has put up an album on Facebook.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Season So Far...

My little girl is seven months old now, and what a seven months it's been! But nobody wants to hear about baby stuff when there's Awa business to talk about!

Our main festival events don't begin for another couple of months yet, but despite this we've already had five performances this season (November to October), some more unusual than others. To recap briefly:

December 26th: Jun Yanagi's Year End Dinner Show
One square meter each.
Not sure how well known she is, as I don't follow Enka circles, but a high class function suite in a well known Nakano hotel overlooking the city was packed out, so I would say well known enough. It was so packed out, that our stage area was literally two square meters. Just as well we came light, with just two representatives from each dance part.

February 7th: Volunteer performance at Hatagaya Social Centre
Taken behind the scenes, for everybody's safety.
This is a facility we perform at more or less anually. The audience is a large group of mentally handicapped young adults, some of whom enjoy sitting around, watching the performance, not jumping up and charging as quickly as they can in random directions without warning; others less so. The staff are very efficient, and can always be relied upon to grapple the more mobile guests to the ground at a moment's notice, before they end up flying straight out of a window, or getting their head stuck in a drum. As such, there is no need for us to worry about any of these things as we perform, despite the looming prospect that this time, it might be different. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable time for everyone involved!

March 27th: Wedding reception performance
Not pictured: Me. Anywhere.
At a bowling alley. Really. Our stage was the area between the lanes and where the balls are returned, that bowlers use for runups. It's worth noting that the wedding was between two of our members, and one of them takes bowling very seriously. Unfortunately, I could not be present for this particular performance as my wife wanted to go, and taking little'un wasn't an option for reasons I could never quite confirm.

April 9th: Volunteer performance at Higashi Kenko Plaza
Jumping and shouting!
This is another facility we perform at maybe once every two years. The second time I performed there, I was bitten by an old lady. I was lucky to get out alive! This time was much more fun, with a very chatty MC who made sure they got a whole hour out of us in a very very hot room. Nobody tried to eat me though, so I would call it an overwhelming success.

May 6th: Miss Supranational Japan 2016 Finals Opening Act
Shakey-cam footage also available.
Probably our most prestigious performance todate. This invitation was something of a mixed blessing as it was a good hour north of Tokyo on what was technically a week day, which made getting the members together quite hard. We also had to adapt our choreography to allow the finalists to perform along with us for a spell. On the plus side, we got to rehearse on the actual stage, which allowed us to block the formation properly so we weren't all over the place, as often happens when 20 or 30 odd people with no sense of direction try to coordinate their actions. On the minus again, the concert hall seated 2,500 people which was the cause of some considerable stress for certain members who weren't used to performing in front of an audience that size—this was not a problem for me, because I've long since mastered the art of pretending like a mistake was deliberate, and was confident nobody was going to be in the audience shouting "Hey, look! The white guy is the only one that's doing it wrong!" (He only heckles at Kabuki these days, and seems to fit right in there.) As it turned out though, the hall was far from capacity. That said, the event was also live streamed to well over half a million people worldwide, a fact that—thankfully for those feeling under pressure—was not revealed to us until after we'd finished. All in all a fun event to be a part of.
Miss Supranational Japan Facebook Page
In other news, we've had an influx of new members this year, especially in my section. Four people starting from scratch (or near enough) that have needed to be trained, with the threat of yet more looming, plus one very experienced member who puts the rest of us to shame—and about time too. On Sunday 8th, I held a workshop for the new members so they can experience first hand just how strict I am about the correct ways to put on a costume. Some even took notes. It brought a tear to my eye.

All in all, a very busy season so far, with plenty more to come this summer! Look forward to seeing you all at Kyōdō in July!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Brief Hiatus

This season ended well with an additional two performances, one as far away as Shizuoka, and a volunteer performance at a much closer facility in Haneda. Both were well received, and we're now back to training for next year's summer festivals with some new members that took a keen interest over the past few months. 

During that time, a new family member arrived which has been occupying most of my time, so for the immediate future my postings will be few and far between. My apologies to readers excited about hearing about the weekly grind of basic skill training, but sometimes sacrifices must be made for the next generation of odoriko.

Will endeavour to update occasionally so watch this space!

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.