Dance troupe Condors summon teen spirit for new show ’17’s Map’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting down with Condors frontman Ryohei Kondo, he says something a bit surprising: “’17’s Map’ is a work in progress.”

This sounds startling at first as we’re just three weeks from the curtain rising on the all-male dance troupe’s newest production, which shares its name with a 1983 song by Yutaka Ozaki called “Jyunana-sai no Chizu” (“Seventeen-year-old’s Map”).

Kondo says there’s no reason to worry; this is how the troupe works.

“We don’t have a strict list of songs we want to do, we’re still looking for music that will match the concept,” he continues. “We have lots of members and we brainstorm, try to be open-minded and not take things too seriously. For anyone watching, it probably looks like we’re not getting too much accomplished.”

Luckily for their audience, Condors have a good track record when it comes to accomplishments. The troupe is currently celebrating their 20th anniversary, and last year Kondo was awarded the 67th Arts Encouragement Prize from the culture ministry.

The music may not be confirmed 100 percent at the time of our interview, but the title is bound to elicit pangs of nostalgia from middle-aged Japanese rock fans. Ozaki’s tune spoke to the teenage desire of resisting the prescribed empty life of adulthood, a map without limits and borders. It’s the way Condors work, too: a hodgepodge of dancing, skits and music that conveys an unrestrained feeling and a wide-open vista of possibility. Kondo points out that the title also refers to the current year and the number of dancers in the troupe.

“We also chose this title because 17 is the age when people are full of dreams, it’s not just about Ozaki,” he says, adding that he has also taken inspiration from the idea of a “gigantic wall.”

“A wall can be a big gray obstacle or it can be something you climb over as a means to escape, or even something that crumbles,” he says. “We recently did a show in Mexico and when you hear ‘Mexico’ these days you think of the ‘wall’ between the U.S. and Mexico. We were on the Mexican side and I could feel all the nuances of that word, ‘wall.’ So I’ve been playing with how to use a ‘wall’ as a key word in our performance.”

One wall Kondo is particularly keen on tearing down is a generational one. With this new production specifically focusing on the teenage spirit (and offering a discount to anyone under 25), he hopes that more young people will be tempted to give theater a chance.

“Nowadays the media holds immense power over junior high and high school students, and even college students,” he says. “They’re attracted to anything trendy they see on TV or in other forms of media. We’re in our 40s and do stage performances; teenagers aren’t typically interested in that kind of show.”

It was this realization that led Condors to try to spread the appeal of dance culture and live theater to young people. If they weren’t going to come to the stage, Condors would bring the stage to them via collaborations with schools and universities.

“Schools will sometimes have events that require them to bring in performers, and a long time ago those would be things like kabuki or the more traditional arts,” Kondo says. “But recently some innovative junior high and high schools have asked us to perform. Many of these kids have never seen a show like ours so it’s a completely different world for them. Hopefully it’s an impetus for them to get onto the stage themselves someday.”

In addition to this focus on young people, Condors have been working to increase their overseas experience each year. As well as the trip to Mexico in February, in which the group performed in front of more than 3,000 people, they were in Singapore last year for two interactive sessions at universities and arts programs there.

Kondo himself grew up in Peru, Chile and Argentina, and perhaps because of his travels he has been able to see a world that is much larger than just Japan. He says this outlook and the group’s frequent international appearances have also helped them to remain innovative.

Kondo is a naturally gregarious person, and his enthusiasm is contagious — you can’t help but get excited with him as he explains what Condors are doing. Then, the energy goes up a notch as he mentions his team.

“Last year we celebrated our 20th anniversary and we received a prize, and now we’re starting a new act, so it’s kind of like we’re back at the starting line,” he says. “The venue, staff and the members are great. It’s rare to have such a wonderful environment to work in, it’s amazing teamwork.”

Kondo pauses and laughs. “In musical terms, you could say we’re pitch perfect!”

Condors will perform “17’s Map” at Saitama Arts Theater in Saitama on May 20 (2 p.m., 7 p.m.) and May 21 (3 p.m.). Tickets cost from ¥2,000 to ¥5,000, with discounts for those under 25. Call the box office at 0570-064-939 or www.saf.or.jp for details. For more information on Condors, visit www.condors.jp.

Kondo: ‘In a lot of ways, we’re a big family’

In 1996, Ryohei Kondo and a handful of like-minded dancers started Condors with the goal of blending choreographed sequences alongside a mix of media and theatrical performance. Membership in the all-male troupe now stands at 17.

“We’re going into our 21st year and although our specialty is dance, all of our members have a wide variety of other experiences,” Kondo explains. “Some are teachers, some run companies, some own bars — we’re a mixed bunch and that keeps us creatively fresh.”

Kondo believes one other aspect sets the men apart from other dance troupes.

“We all have kids, ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a bit of a circus.”

Kondo credits Condors’ family ties for keeping their performances unique.

“The way we work together and connect with people makes us special,” he says. “We’re not just concerned about ticket sales; we want to create shows that will engage a wide audience. We ourselves have young children, so we know that parents with young children usually don’t get the chance to go out. That’s why we try to provide entertainment the whole family can enjoy together.

“Because our performances are nonverbal, children relate to our work. We’ve naturally moved toward creating more of these kinds of shows, because in a lot of ways, we’re a big family.” (Kris Kosaka)