Drums, Dance, Mime

Odaiko Sonora enlists some friends for their first full concert in two years

Yarrow King has the answer to the great mystery of Batucaxé: How do you pronounce the name of the lively troupe that's been bringing the rhythms of Brazil and Africa to Tucson for the last eight years?

It's bah-too-kah-SHAY, says King, Batucaxé's assistant director for dance. The name, appropriately, is a combo of the Portuguese word for percussion and an African blessing. Used as a greeting, axé is the "word for 'life force.'"

The energetic dance-and-drumming troupe has its origins in a group of friends dancing Brazilian-style in the Fourth of July parade on Mount Lemmon way back in 2001. Since that samba under the pines, Batucaxé has mushroomed into a community performance group some 55 strong.

The gang gets together every Sunday for a dance class and celebration at the Rhythm Industry Performance Factory. The troupe's dance styles, King says, bridge the South Atlantic, merging the low-to-the-earth movements of Africa with the sambas that African slaves eventually developed in Brazil, mixed in with a little Cuban voodoo gesture, Caribbean reggae and indigenous Brazilian styles.

"It's influenced by religious dances," King says.

Batucaxé most often performs in outdoor festivals, such as the Carnival in Armory Park last winter. Earlier this month, their white-clad dancers, and their drummers, pounding silver drums, brought up the rear of the All Souls Procession, a march of big-head puppets and mourners dressed as skeletons.

This weekend, Batucaxé is going indoors for a fully staged concert, one of three guest groups invited to perform in Taiko Plus! The evening-length concert, organized by Odaiko Sonora, Tucson's homegrown Japanese taiko-drumming group, also features Thom Lewis Dance and Theatrical Mime Theatre.

"Tucson has a little self-esteem problem," says Karen Falkenstrom, co-director and co-founder of Odaiko Sonora. "Some people think our artists are parochial. But I know how good they are."

A recent winner of the coveted Arizona Arts Award, Falkenstrom says she wanted to put the spotlight on the town's sometimes-underappreciated performing artists. One bonus: In a dance-poor season, when several local troupes have been unable to stage their work, Taiko Plus! will offer up plenty of movement.

"I'm proud of my peeps," Falkenstrom says of her collaborators.

Still, half of the concert will be pure Odaiko Sonora. The drummers haven't had a full concert in two years, and they'll bang out new music on their enormous taiko drums, along with some older tunes.

"We're debuting 'Weather Suite,' four original songs about living in Tucson," Falkenstrom says. Traditional taiko groups in Japan typically compose homages to their hometowns, and "we wanted to do something like that for Tucson."

All three of the guest troupes rehearse at Rhythm Industry, the building Odaiko Sonora bought in the Warehouse District south of the railroad tracks a couple of years back. Each of the three principal taiko Sonora drummers invited one guest troupe to be in the show, and the collaboration has been exhilarating, Falkenstrom says.

"There's been lots of cross-pollinating," she says.

Drummer Nicole Levesque, the former O-T-O dancer formerly known as Nicole Stansbury, invited Lewis and company. The modern dancers have been rehearsing what Lewis described earlier this season as a "contemporized" Japanese folk dance, set to the beat of taiko drums.

Its working title is "Kasa Mix," after the taiko troupe whose song they're using, Falkenstrom says. A dance in three parts, it musically moves from a flute/drum duet to a flute trio to a drum sextet.

Odaiko Sonora co-director and co-founder Rome Hamner has been doing mime herself lately, so she chose Rick Wamer and Lorie Heald of Theatrical Mime Theatre. The pair, Falkenstrom notes, has an international reputation, and a few seasons ago, they performed in China.

Their piece intriguingly combines the silent movements of mime with the big sounds of the drums. Even the title signals the mix of forms. It's called "Time," a play on words that blends "taiko" with "mime."

Falkenstrom herself tapped Batucaxé, and the two troupes were delighted to find parallels between Japanese and African-Brazilian forms. (They had something else in common: While Batucaxé's dancers and drummers ended the All Souls Procession, Falkenstrom and her drum-on-wheels led the march.)

"What Karen and I got excited about were the similarities between Japanese and African-Brazilian dance," says King, of Batucaxé. "They represent people from opposite sides of the world."

They discovered, for instance, that the two traditions use similar movements to convey wind blowing. The artists will draw on both styles for the major collaborative work that ends the concert. Falkenstrom, a former poet, christened it "Saikotamba," a mélange word conjuring up both samba and taiko.

"There'll be just one dancer at the beginning," King explains, "with the music pared down to percussion and flute." (A few Batucaxé musicians play flute, guitar and horns along with their drums.) "In our piece, you'll hear Japanese-specific, then Brazilian-specific, and then both together."

A passage of sacred dance gives way to a whole tribe of dancers and drummers "entering the scene. It builds to become a celebration. By the end, we'll have 35 to 45 dancers onstage, and Karen will have 10 to 12 drummers," King explains.

The mimes and modern dancers are also expected to join in—the work is part improv—"then we'll bring the instruments outside," King promises, and do what Batucaxé does best: Dance in the street.

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