Tao takes an innovative approach to drum shows


Special To The Japan Times

The slogan goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Drum troupe Tao, however, thinks a successful show in Sin City could be the springboard to bigger things around the world.

The globe-trotting wadaiko (Japanese drum) performance group has entertained some 6.5 million people in 22 countries since it debuted on the international scene at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest theater event.

Known for energetic and showy performances, the troupe has reportedly set its sights on the challenge of performing in Las Vegas, the glitzy mecca of showy performances. It’s a style that’s a bit of a change from traditional, drum-oriented wadaiko performances.

To find out more, I recently spoke on the phone with Tao’s main performer, 37-year-old Kagoshima Prefecture native Arisa Nishi, about the troupe’s latest program, “Nippon Drum Emaki” (“Drum Heart”). The show has been staged in more than 60 places around Japan since premiering in May in Oita, where the company is based.

Though we speak the day after the final performance of 2015 — again in Oita — Nishi sounds anything but tired as she launches into an energetic explanation about “Drum Heart,” and how its concept initially baffled many longtime fans — and even some of Tao’s nearly 30 performers.

“For the first time, we asked a theater dramatist, Amon Miyamoto (an award-winning director of Broadway musicals and other productions), to direct our show,” Nishi says. “So, though it’s a drum performance, there is story development in ‘Drum Heart,’ too.”

That story begins with a thunderous volcanic eruption that devastates the countryside. One of the few survivors is a young boy who is left trying to rebuild his village alone until he’s attacked by neighboring villagers seizing an opportunity to take the land. Then, a celestial nymph (played by Nishi) appears and reasons with everyone to cooperate to rebuild their lives — which they do, exchanging their weapons for drumsticks in order to harmoniously play music together.

Building a show around a story broke entirely new ground for Tao, and there’s no hiding Nishi’s pride when she says how — after developing the program day by day through 2015 — the troupe’s final show last year ended with a standing ovation from the full-house audience.

“Besides that new storyline,” Nishi went on to explain, “another innovation was using bunraku-style puppets (with three puppeteers manipulating each puppet) — we also have acting scenes without words or even drumming.

“Actually, in ‘Drum Heart’ I only get to play in a few scenes because I’m more acting as a nymph. It’s a bit sad, but I also enjoy my acting parts,” she says with a laugh.

However, Nishi adds this is all part of Tao’s stylistic transformation with the aim of staging true entertainment shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere, rather than solely being a drum troupe.

That’s not the limit to Tao’s aspirations, either. Nishi ends off by mentioning the company has an additional goal of opening Tao theaters in major cities in order to spread wadaiko culture around the world. And if that’s not an upbeat way to end an interview, what is?

Tao performs “Nippon Drum Emaki (Drum Heart)” at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 15 (1 p.m., 7 p.m. starts; ¥5,500-¥7,500; 03-3477-9999); and Sun City Hall in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Jan. 17 (5:30 p.m.; ¥5,500; 048-985-1112). The troupe then embarks on a North American tour beginning in Montreal on Jan. 20. For more information, call 03-5774-3030 or visit www.drum-tao.com.