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Kodo One Earth Tour 2016: Mystery at The Barbican – Review

KODO in 'Mystery' touring UK 2016
KODO in ‘Mystery’ touring UK 2016

In Kodo One Earth Tour 2016: Mystery, there were serpents with eyes that lit up like fire, figures that were part human, part animal, dragons, human fireflies and of course the legendary Kodo drummers.

In the past their shows have been all about the taiko drummers with very little else but recently the company’s new Artistic Director Tamasaburo Bando has changed the format bringing in elements of classical Japanese theatre that contrast with the athletic drumming that we’ve come to expect from this amazing group of musicians who are based on the Japanese island of Sado.

The piece began in complete darkness and as the audience’s eyes became adjusted to the blackness, three “snakes” slithered their way onto the stage moving in a serpentine rhythm to the drums and the Fue flutes. It was almost impossible to see how the performers were achieving these sensuous movements inside their intricate, fifteen foot long costumes – movements that were extremely hypnotic.

The serpents were followed by a series of vignettes including what looked like fireflies with lanterns attached to their backs illuminating the performers faces. We then had some arguing women (female members of the company are a 21st century modification) confronted by the half man/half monsters, an almost pantomimic like dragon before the first half ended with an extended drum ensemble piece which was similar to the kind of rhythmic ad hoc drum performances you might see on the South Bank or Brighton beach but without their raggedness – this is pure drum professionalism of the highest order.

During the second half we had more vignettes, the highlight of which was the return of the serpents, although this time there were four of them with scary, flashing eyes and their movements were even more sensuous and hypnotic than in the first half with their different colour tails intertwining in a dance that was reminiscent of the mating dance of some exotic creature from nature. In fact, most of the “creatures” in the piece had a mythological, other-world quality performed as if they were living in a magical Japanese forest or temple courtyard.

There was also a clever use of lighting with some of the performers carrying powerful torches that threw giant shadows of the drummers high onto the rear walls and added another dimension to the piece.

However, it’s still mainly about the drummers and all the big guns were brought out for the finale which included not only drums of various sizes but the Fue flutes and a chappo (a Japanese hand cymbal). The real star was the enormous 1000lb drum which shook the Barbican to its core and made the audience’s teeth rattle. To find the energy to pound on a gargantuan drum for over 20 minutes needs an incredible amount of fitness and endurance levels which come from a regime and a discipline that would put a world-class athlete to shame.

This was an amazing evening from the whole group of 15 performers and the Barbican rose in tribute at the end of a vibrant exhibition of drumming. The traditional Japanese elements of the forest vignettes may have been a mystery to the mostly western audience but everyone felt the visceral quality of these superb drum masters. As someone said on the way out, “You can’t get too much of fit, sweaty, muscled athletic men pounding on an emormous drum”!

4 stars


Review by Alan Fitter

Kodo returns for their first Barbican performance in a decade as part of their One Earth Tour 2016: Mystery, The 35th Anniversary.
Twinning contemporary music and dance based on traditional Japanese arts, the production is directed by Tamasaburo Bando (one of the most celebrated Kabuki actors) and expresses the Japanese sensation of ‘mystery’ defined by a dynamic taiko drumming performance.

Based on Sado Island in Japan, Kodo, Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble made its debut in 1981 at the Berlin Festival. Since then they have vigorously worked with many taiko drums in all shapes and forms as well as other traditional instruments and tour extensively across five continents.

2016 UK tour dates:
February 13th Warwick Arts Centre
www.warwickartscentre.co.uk 024 7652 4524
February 15th London, Barbican Hall
www.barbican.org.uk 020 7638 4141
February 17th Basingstoke Anvil
www.anvilarts.org.uk 01256 844244
February 18th High Wycombe Swan
www.wycombeswan.co.uk 01494 512000
February 19th Plymouth Pavilions
www.plymouthpavilions.com 0845 146 1460
February 20th Poole Lighthouse
www.lighthouse.co.uk 0844 406 8666
February 22nd Cambridge Corn Exchange
www.cornex.co.uk 01223 357851


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