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ISSUE 120 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/9/2007

A metaphorical blend of tap, Taiko: Dance artist-in-residence integrates diverse rhythms to examine

By Lyndel Owens
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 9, 2007

Dance artist-in-residence Ellen Keane has begun choreographing an interpretation of changes spanning thousands of years in southern Minnesota’s natural history using St. Olaf tap dancers and Taiko drummers. The dance is divided into five sections in which every minute is equivalent to precisely 1,000 years of history, and each part represents an ancient Chinese element – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Keane intends to connect the “parallel universes” of tap dancing and Taiko drumming to spark contemplation on time and changes.

An informal rehearsal of the “wood” section was held Saturday in Kelsey Theatre from 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. The final performance will be held on May 3, 4 and 5 as part of the Companydance Spring Concert.

Keane and the St. Olaf Dance Department began working on developing a piece last spring. The collaboration is ideal because Keane can integrate Taiko drumming using the St. Olaf’s Taiko club and her choreography allows dancers to work with tap, a form of dance not taught at St. Olaf but that interests many students.

“Whooshing” noises created by one, then two drummers signaled the piece’s beginning. Other sounds and chirps followed, creating a cacophony mimicking the noises of a forest. The interplay between the tap dancing and Taiko drumming was hypnotic, characterized by similar movements between the dancers and drummers.

Professor of Dance Sherry Saterstrom said, “The visual and aural sounds that [Keane] is creating with drumming and dancing are a reflection of changes that have happened over time at this confluence of the Minnesota River and the Mississippi River.”

The 12 dancers clustered to symbolize trees such as birch and other foliage that characterize the southern Minnesota landscape. The dancers’ onstage movement adhered to the time and form of how their tree type moved across the defined swath of southern Minnesota. Each piece’s duration was approximately 10 minutes, covering 10,000 years of dynamic change around familiar areas such as Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Keane’s research process is as equally compelling as her piece. “The concept came to me this fall to use this real place and real time to see what happens,” she said. Fascinated with various types of rhythm, she began taking classes with the Minneapolis drumming group Misora Taiko in the spring of 2002. In addition, she developed interest in Minnesota’s natural history and hiked in Crosby State Park and along the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Eventually she compiled items outlining Minnesota’s glacial history and botanical changes, which became her guide while choreographing.

Keane said she began choreographing with a well-developed concept and “small ideas” in terms of specific moves. Yet connections between concepts of time, place and movement are well-illustrated in her piece. In one portion dancers delivered an undulating interpretation of prairie grass ablaze using pu-ili (a bamboo instrument with slats) in a manner evocative of Taiko drummers’ upper-body gestures.

The excellent synthesis of tap dancing and Taiko drumming testifies to the value of integrating diverse types of rhythmic expression. Saterstrom observes that through processes such as this, “ancient forms can continue to grow and reinvent themselves. So [Taiko drummers and tap dancers] actually integrate and ideas cross over.”

Elizabeth Brantley ’07, a member of St. Olaf’s Taiko Drum Club and a drummer in Keane’s piece, said that “The form of Taiko we are learning is based off of martial arts, so we have a lot of long arm movements and fluid movements. In this way, you could call Taiko a form of dance in and of itself. Both Taiko and tap dancing are based on rhythms and while I never would have paired them together, it’s a visual and aural treat to see and hear them in sync.”

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