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Japanese group DRUM TAO mesmerizes a full house at the Staller Center

The Japanese performance group DRUM TAO returned to the Staller Center for the Arts on Feb. 3 for their North American tour. DRUM TAO incorporated innovative entertainment elements such as their black, white and silver costumes into their performance. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMBER LEWIS/STALLER CENTER

Fusing taiko drumming and martial arts, the dynamic Japanese performance group DRUM TAO returned to the Staller Center for the Arts for a sold-out show on Feb. 3 as a part of their North American tour, coinciding with their 30th anniversary.

Taro Harasaki, the company manager and one of the group’s performers, shared the story of how DRUM TAO began. Inspired by Cirque du Soleil’s show “Mystère,” which also featured taiko drums, founder Ikuo Fujitaka wanted to “create [a] new production or entertainment show using only Japanese traditional instruments,” Harasaki said. In addition to the array of drums, these instruments included a Japanese harp-like instrument, known as the koto, and bamboo flutes. 

In their quest to distinguish themselves from traditional taiko troupes, DRUM TAO incorporates innovative entertainment elements such as eye-catching costumes, props and electric stage lighting. 

“The production is very modern and different from previous or past show[s],” Harasaki said. “But still, we try to keep something from the original production 30 years ago.”

From the very beginning of the show, DRUM TAO demonstrates that their performance engages more than just the ears. Through clean and synchronized choreography, the performers exude strength in their movements, seamlessly transitioning from one formation into another, mixing elements of dance and martial arts. From spinning folding fans to acrobatic flips, there is never a dull moment in the show. 

The performers’ immense physicality is never lost on the audience. The demanding nature of the show comes with extensive preparation and training. The cast live and practice at their home base, Tao Village, in the Oita prefecture in southern Japan. Harasaki said that a typical day starts at 5 a.m. with a five-mile run, followed by workouts and rhythmic training involving continuous drumming for an hour. To maintain their stamina, the performers practice and rehearse for more than 10 hours a day.

Displaying their strength and endurance during the show, one performer exuded a deep bellow as his arms increasingly sped up in rapid drumming motions, becoming a blur of circles.

In the second half of the show, DRUM TAO began incorporating disco music, paying homage to an initiative that began roughly three years ago known as CLUB TAO, in which the troupe brings taiko drumming into club nightlife. During “WAGAKKI BAND II,” performers interacted with the audience, encouraging them to clap along to the beat and turning the performance into a communal experience. 

Another standout number combined gorgeous koto melodies with a subdued electronic beat. The performers twirled across the stage with paper umbrellas in hand, highlighting the troupe’s grace and lyricism and lending to the group’s overall versatile performance. 

Harasaki spoke highly of the ongoing North American tour, saying DRUM TAO had been performing for full houses of enthusiastic audiences. The Staller Center show was no exception. Audience members fervently clapped along with the beats and erupted in applause after each number, showing their awe and appreciation for the performers.

Even though DRUM TAO embarks on a North American tour every two years, the last time they performed at Staller Center was in 2020. Towards the end of the show, the performers expressed their desire to return in the future before surprising the audience with an energetic encore. 

The promise that Harasaki had made during the interview — that the group’s show is full of energy, power and passion — certainly rang true as the audience remained abuzz even after the curtains closed. 

A delight to watch, DRUM TAO amazes and transports viewers into a different world with fantastical theatrical flair. 

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