First, what I liked. The sound engineer was good. At the opening of the show, the tone of large drums blended fairly well with a backing track of cello and synth strings.
Otherwise, this was one of the most artistically-vaccuous things I've ever seen.
The composition was weak, the skill level low, and the delivery pandering. Minh and I left before intermission. I should pause to say that Minh and I were outliers in this opinion. The audience was genuinely engaged. They applauded enthusiastically, laughed at the pantomime, and gasped at a backflip. The young man sitting next to me drummed his hands in space, smiling. But Minh and I instead laughed at the absurd theatricality and gasped at the ruin of stolen ideas.
Composition. It feels like this show is written by a director, and not a musician. The songs offer no surprise. The rhythms are basic, unoriginal, and offered only as "parts". Player 1 plays an obvious groove, player 2 adds another. There is no development or variation, and no sense that the players are feeling something inside them. There is no "rhythmic vocabulary". It's like a non-drummer made a list of all the great ideas in taiko and tried to get through each of them in 90 seconds. Yatai Bayashi, for example, a piece rooted in an amazing festival in Japan and recreated for the stage by Kodo, is reduced to loud bashing and ends in a joke. One of the seated players struggling to maintain the strenuous position is pushed down by a bully performer while others gesture for the audience to applaud. What is this?! Gone is the unique lilt of the original festival rhythms. Gone is Kodo's thoughtful arrangement, with long builds and intricate shime breaks. Gone is the refined playing form and indiviualized solos. Those soulful aspects of the Japanese original have been stripped away, presumably because they're difficult, leaving only a bad Las Vegas sideshow.
One bit borrows the lion costume and dance from kabuki's Kagamijishi. In the original, the music is incredible. The shamisen and percussion ensemble are fast and intricate and the tempo increases alongside the dance to a fever pitch. Of all traditional music I've heard, it resonates with me the most, with the intensity and "meanness" of hip hop, but in a way I've never heard before. Tao's version took the lion's mane costome and set the choreography to cheesy melodies and slow drums. The dance was simple and "cute". There was no build. There was no fever pitch. They reduced this gem of Japanese art to a cheap trinket. I was artistically offended.
Choreography. The show's chorography is ignorant. There are only two ways of moving, and they're painfully heteronormative -- a masculine, pose-oriented style for the men and a slinky, sexy, smoky-eye style for the women. Instead of movement conveying feeling, the players take positions on stage like a marching band and point at each other to indicate solos. Poses are cocky, with side-long glances and winking. A soloist's arm swing works against his strikes. The movements are determined by a director too, instead of a choreographer.
Skill. The players have mastered their parts, but the parts are so simple, there is no mastery to enjoy. There is no impressive drumming or dancing. I feel sorry for these musicians, forced to play uninspired, artless parts night after night. They've polished a turd.
The show is also sexist -- men are agressive and dressed like a boy band, women are sexy and gentle. It's Three's Company set in Japan.
Art vs Entertainment
It's been interesting to hear others' thoughts about the show. "It's definitely not art, but I enjoyed it as entertainment." I'm glad others enjoyed it -- it's always better to find the good in things than to lament the bad. But for me, even as "entertainment", the show doesn't work. The show can only be entertaining if you know nothing about taiko. I like the following distinction. "Entertainment" works within our expectations to create pleasure whereas "art" asks the viewer grow. Without anything transformative, Drum Tao is definitely not "art", and without any grasp on the genre of taiko, the skill of percussion, the soul of dance, for me, Drum Tao isn't entertainment either.