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Rock Challenge Japan sets youthful energy, idealism to music

by Minoru Matsutani

Hip hop, pop, ballade and minyo Japanese folk formed the musical backdrops in the Rock Challenge Japan 2009 last week, a dance performance by and for high schoolers.

Soundtracks ranged from Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me” and other contemporary dance music to soran bushi, a minyo favorite, to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, with some of the performances featuring scenes from dramas “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and James Cameron’s “Titanic,” among others.

“It’s really interesting to see so many different kinds of dancing. It was inspiring to see children perform at such depth,” said Australian Derek Brown, whose daughter took part as member of the Tokyo International School team. “I hope it continues next year. It gives children a sense of pride.”

Ten teams — four international schools, four dance schools, a Japanese private high school and a school in Britain — took part in Thursday’s event, which organizer Michael J. Di Stasio plans to hold annually.

The rules call for a five- to eight-minute performance — a mini musical with professional stage sets, including lighting and sound effects — that involves 20 to 120 students. Live music is not allowed, but students can play recorded music.

“Students practice really hard for the event. Through the practice, they work together to build resilience and self-esteem,” De Stasio said at Yokohama Kannai Hall, where the event took place. “They learn teamwork and how to listen to others.”

Rock Challenge, which says it has been recognized by UNESCO and the World Health Organization as one of the world’s best health-education programs, began in Australia in 1980 with the help of volunteers like Di Stasio who are working to promote healthy lives for young people around the world through the performing arts.

The event is now held in seven countries, including the United States, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa, in addition to Japan. Rock Challenge Japan was held in 2006, 2008 and this year.

The 2 1/2-hour event was open to the public and free of charge, with the audience made up mostly of parents of the performers and choreographers. The organizers raised funds for the event from corporate sponsors.

Britain’s ambassador to Japan, David Warren, attended the event to honor the Wavell School team, which traveled from the U.K. to participate.

“This is fantastic. I loved it,” Warren said after seeing all 10 teams perform. “It was enormously impressive.”

Frank Forelle, whose child was part of the team from the American School in Japan, also praised the show, saying he is looking forward to next year’s event.

All 10 teams received an award.

“We have best awards for everybody,” DJ Kamasami Kong, one of the judges who has his own show on Tokyo FM, said before announcing the award winners.

The award for enthusiasm went to the team from Columbia International School, whose theme was bringing people of opposing viewpoints together through music and dance. The ward for spectacle was given to the team TC Sprout for its mixture of Japanese and Western dance, and the “dreams-come-true award” went to Dancing for Kids and Mondesign and Austrian Ballet School team with their theme, “Kids of Dreams.”

The award for inspiration went to the Tokyo International School team, whose performance expressed the idea of overcoming racial and religious differences, and featured Martin Luther King’s famous speech. The best action award went to the SKI (Sho Kosugi International) Tokyo-ko team, which combined music with martial arts.

The Hana Enterprise team won the “wow” award for its dances to the tunes of Drifters, a legendary Japanese comedic group, while the team spirit and heart award went to the Toho Gakuen High School team with its soran bushi dance.

The best staging award was given to the Nishimachi International School team, with its time-travel theme. The audience reaction award went to the American School in Japan team for its “Historical Hip Hop Journey in Time” performance. The best drama award was given to the Wavell School team from Britain, which performed “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”