New York

Kodō

City Center

Severe disciplines serving mystical visions; exotic instruments, costumes, and techniques; unusual staging contexts—these are what Western audiences have been conditioned to expect from the Eastern performing arts for years. And then there’s the “authenticity” factor, which charms contemporary audiences into suspending the usually modern filters—i.e., irony, detachment, etc.—when they witness performances that fit no Western categories. In the 1930s, Antonin Artaud was outlining ideas for the performance of the future based on his search for “the real,” a theoretical leap that led him to declare Oriental dance, music, and theater superior to an atrophied Western theater. His reason? He found them somehow more authentic because of the inherent surrealism of their strangeness.

Kodō, the 30-member troupe of drummers known as “the heartbeat drummers of Japan,” has turned these assumptions around; but it is not clear if the audiences for the performances they have been giving on their world tour have understood exactly what they’ve been hearing and seeing. The rapturous ovations by packed houses that greeted their flamboyantly theatrical drumming seemed based on an appreciation of their impressive craft as exotic folk music. However, like butoh—the other “renegade” Japanese performing art that has recently become popular with Western audiences—Kodō’s drumming is in fact not an ancient tradition but a recently established artificial creation. Although it is derived from the ancient form of Japanese tribal drumming called taiko, which has long served as the musical accompaniment for Kabuki and other forms of Japanese theater, Kodō presents it on its own terms, out of its original context, with the juice turned up.

Founded in 1971, the group lives communally on an isolated island and is notorious for its extremely rigorous physical training regimen—a cross between monklike asceticism and Green Beret heroics. The founder of the ensemble, Tagayasu Den, considered such training necessary for the drummers to perform lengthy stretches of vigorous drumming; their original name, Ondekoza, means “demon drummers” (it was changed to Kodō, which means “heartbeat,” after Den left in 1981). Now, under the direction of Yoshiaki Oi, the only one of the founding members remaining, the ensemble’s emphasis has shifted. Their recent program was a theatrically modulated series of discrete pieces involving unison percussion with different-size drums; also included were interludes of delicate flute music and intricate dance, and even a broadly comic humorous skit.

But even this altered program only sketchily alluded to traditional Japanese practice; in no way did Kodō follow the typical folklorish path of merely grafting slight innovations onto antique practice (which is especially true of the extremely codified Japanese performing arts). As in butoh, the past served more as an inspirational jumping-off point than as a rigid model. Kodō’s “authenticity” is perhaps overly identified with the dramatic thunder of the group’s show-stopping grand finale, in which two loincloth-clad men beat the 900-pound o-daiko, a giant drum, in a slow-motion endurance test. The visceral punch is awesome. In other pieces, Kodō displayed a thoroughly modern sensibility, forsaking programmatic “village” percussion for efforts that showed off sophisticated formal skills in unison patterns, rhythmic counterpoint, and dynamic changes in texture and volume. Far from being a current look into some imagined ancient Oriental history (and therefore almost completely inaccessible to Westerners in the usual ways), Kodō laid claim to sounds of the future with significant authority.

John Howell