June 8th, 2010
La Havre, France, a port city in Northern France has two theaters right in the heart of town, Grand Volcan and Petit Volcan (the big and little volcano). These two theaters, designed by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, are adjacent concrete upward sloping forms, as if Frank Gehry designed some miniature nuclear power plants.
The group I am performing with is Urban Tap, a group of musicians and dancers led by the tap dance virtuoso Tamango. The cast has over the years gone through many changes, but for this incarnation Tamango ambitiously brought together 19 dancers, artists and musicians: three French break dancers; Antoinette, a dancer from Guinea; Vado Diamonde, a stilt dancer from the Ivory Coast; Cabello, a capoerista from Brazil; tap dancers from France (Roxanne Butterfly), Japan (Chikako Iwahori), Guiana (Tamango) and the US (Baakari); Bonga, a haitian voodoo drummer; the Moroccan Ngawa master Hassan Hakmoun; Jean, a French video artist; Kenny Muhammad, a beat boxer from the US; Eric, a French bass player; Fabio Morgera, an Italian jazz trumpet player; Mosin, an Indian tabla player; Daniel Moreno, a percussionist best described as being from the world and myself on the Japanese taiko and flutes. Many musicians played multiple instruments as well.
Rehearsals, if you can call them that, consisted mainly of sitting around waiting for the tech crew to finish setting up (they ended up doing a remarkable job considering the mix of video, dance, tap dance, and huge range of sound being produced by the various instruments), then everyone on stage trying to hear each other and see what was going on (no set list, no set pieces, no written music) with Tamango talking, shouting and breaking off into long discussions with people. After spending about 7 hours on call, people were pretty exhausted by evening. About an hour before the concert, a group of us sat and decided upon a very loose program order and then it was time to perform. Besides his extraordinary dancing skills, part of the brilliance of Tamango is that he chooses artists who know how to improvise, who know how to make themselves and others shine no matter the situation. And shine they (modestly, we) did!
Each performer was featured in spontaneously created solos, duets, trios, quartets or full ensemble improvisations, one leading into the other, with Tamango acting as tour guide while the focus moved across cultural landscapes- America, Brazil, Japan, Haiti, Guiana, Morocco, France, India, the Ivory Coast and places beyond. Added to all this, both live and pre-recorded video was mixed, juxtaposed, layered, abstracted every which way and then projected on the huge screen behind the stage. The projections augmented the emotional effect of the performers' artistic expression and vice versa. The images were compelling yet never distracting, strong but never overpowering, informative but never preachy.
All in all, a true celebration of world cultures by masters whose deep knowledge of their tradition, culture and heritage allow them the freedom to embrace collaboration, experimentation and exchange.