Into the ’20s

By Chidera Obiwuma

On October 18, 2017, I witnessed my first live tap performance and it was very enticing and moving. Prior to the show, I was briefed on the life of Kazunori Kumagai, the tap dancer, and how he worked to do something that he loved and his exploration of a combination between Japanese culture and a traditional art form of African American culture, Jazz and tap dancing.

Regarding the live performance, it was very intricate and not only rhythmical to the ears but also appealing to the eye. It was very fascinating how when Mr. Kumagai did rapid taps to make quick rhythms, as I watched his legs, I didn’t see the movement move through his legs. I wondered how many years of practice did it take for him to move his leg at that pace? How fast was his leg even moving? Doesn’t his leg get tired? It was a really pleasing performance to watch, not only because I could tell Mr. Kumagai was in his element and really enjoying what he was doing, but also with the support he got from the other performers, Masa Shimizu on the guitar, Alex Blake on the bass, and Samuel Torres, on the percussion.

Before the performance, Mr. Kumagai said that the performance was not pre-composed but was just spontaneously made as the performance went on, and it was certainly true. As Mr. Kumagai started a certain rhythm with his tap shoes, the other performers would join in, adding their own element to it and outstandingly, they would all be in sync. It was amusing to see the back and forth battle between Mr. Kumagai and a specific performer to see if they could copy his beat. Mr. Blake was very enthusiastic on the bass; he not only played the bass but scatted to it. At some point he was so into the moment, he would lean back and I would get afraid because I thought he would fall out of the seat. Mr. Torres certainly showed that he was a master on the percussion. He moved his hands so fast between the cymbals and conga that his hands started to look like worms to me. Last but certainly not least, Mr. Shimizu was very overpowering on the guitar. Whenever a beat was started, as soon as he joined in, I could hear his guitar really well and it sounded really good to my ears.

I really liked the performance and would definitely like to see another performance between Mr. Kumagai and Co. I would also like to extend gratitude to the Kennedy Center for giving our Japanese Plus Program, not only the opportunity to see spectacular performances, but also to hear about the lives of Mr. Kumagai, himself, and Ms. Reiko Sudo, textile artist, in terms of what it took for them to achieve what they have today.

Beauty in the Strings

By Daniel Ruiz

Now that I have returned once again to the Japanese language and culture studies for a second year, I was excited as to what sort of thing we would be doing next. This presented itself as a visit to the Kennedy Center, who would be hosting some Japanese people in the musical arts. I took interest in a lady, Yumi Kurosawa, who played an instrument called “koto.” I was a little curious at first due to the odd looking instrument which gave me the impression of some kind of piano/harp hybrid. This was something to look forward to. As Ms. Kurosawa proceeded to play the first of her notes, I was very surprised. The way that she moved reminded me of a river. She seemed to flow with the sound of her own string. I looked it up on google which said that a koto will have 13 strings, but sometimes also 17 string variants can be used. While the koto did not have as many strings as a harp or piano, I swear it could keep up with one, if it had a skilled player like the one I was watching from a seat far behind from most of the audience.

There was some kind of tab or something that I think changed the tension on the strings so that different sounds could be played. It was something I noticed, when after every song or even in the middle of one, Ms. Kurosawa would move the knobs, after which a different pitched sound would resonate, and that really intrigued me. I had no idea that such an instrument had existed. Never did I think that it could also be played along with hip-hop dancing. Another performer, Virgil Gadson, had danced hip-hop while the koto player had remained with her strings. An unlikely combo that had me skeptical at first. It was good to be able to witness the integration of cultures which would have in my head been very distant from one another.

I was so moved by this music that I went home, booted up YouTube and searched up “koto music.” I even had my mom listen to it and we killed a good hour or so listening to the beauty of the string.

My First Tap Experience

Kazu Kumagai

By Raven Bluford

This was my first time ever seeing someone tap dance, so I didn’t really know what to expect and I was really anxious. Once we met Kazunori Kumagai, my anxiousness turned to anticipation because when he talked about how he got into tap dancing it really showed me that there was so much more to tap dancing than what I originally thought. I learned that tap dancing tells a story and the story can be told with more than one story-teller. The story can be told with tap dancers, trumpet players, bass players, and drum players.

The performance overall was really intense and I loved seeing how everything had a solid contribution towards each other. The background music and the lights really set the mood for the music being played and made the experience more intense, which caused me to be quite emotional. I loved seeing how attuned all of the musicians were with each other, because every time the musicians played something, Kazunori knew how to tap to it in a way that made you feel like it was rehearsed, but also made you feel like it was impossible for it to not be impromptu. If given the chance again, I would love to be able to watch another tap performance.

Japan meets Europe: Koto

By Bryson Torgovitsky

Yumi Kurosawa’s koto performance was not at all what I had anticipated. Then again, I did expect it to be unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before, so I suppose my expectation was to be surprised! Kurosawa-san’s skills are undeniable. Not only could she play classic Japanese songs on her koto, she added her own unique spin to the art by meshing it with classic European music.

In what I believe was Kurosawa-san’s third piece, she played a tune that I recognized, but I could not remember its name for the life of me! Afterwards, she informed the audience that she had played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” If Kurosawa-san had not told us the original composer, I would have thought that she had played a Japanese piece. She was that adept at transferring a European piece into her style! That meshing of cultures reminds me of what we are doing in Japanese Plus, and it was amazing to see on stage.

At the end of her performance, Kurosawa-san played an original piece of hers. It felt simultaneously calm and energetic; something that I have found in much of my favorite Japanese music. She added that this piece, as well as several other of her original compositions, would be available for purchase next month. I hope that I can buy them, even though I am in the US!

Kennedy Center Experience

Kennedy Center Japanese Connections

By Rakiya Washington

On Wednesday, October 18, 2017, I had the great opportunity to watch Koto Player, Yumi Kurosawa, and So You Think You Can Dance dancer, Virgil Gadson, perform together for the first time. While watching the duet, I was in tears as the beautiful Koto playing and the breathtaking, skillful dance meshed together perfectly. Since I had never experienced something like this before, I was simply stunned with the amount of skill and technical competence that both performers inhabited. I have always been a fanatic for great music and beautiful dance, yet this experience has made me love both so much more than I have ever before, and I would love to have the opportunity to watch something as breathtaking as this was again.

Hip Hop Dancer at the Kennedy Center

By Chi Onyeka

When we went to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, October 18th we received a talk from Kazu Kumagai (the tap dancer we later saw perform) and Reiko Sudo (the designer for Fantasy in Japan Blue, featured in the Kennedy Center Hall of States). After the discussions, we then had dinner and watched performances from Kazu Kumagai and Yumi Kurosawa, a koto player.

During Ms. Kurosawa’s performance, I was left in curiosity about the instrument she was playing, the koto. I wondered how she interacted with the strings to make such clean, quick, repetitive sounds. After the first two songs, Virgil Gadson was introduced as her hip-hop dancing partner. When she said that he was a hip hop dancer, I was excited to see how it would turn out, because I listen to rap so it was interesting to think of how he would incorporate his dance into her music. Watching him dance seemed really engaging to me. The way he moved around the stage, he was very intact with his balance, as he could put himself into poses that would require an immense amount of focus on one part of the body, say the forearm. I realized that he kept his tempo in sync with the tempo of the koto player, making it easier to follow him and the music as well.

I also liked trying to figure out what message he was trying to convey, or was he just going with the flow? In the end, I loved how he interacted with the koto player, kind of breaking the fourth wall in a way. The two made it seem like they weren’t working on their parts separately, as with this small little section when he changed the direction of Ms. Kurosawa’s focus to an imaginary apple tree, as if playing charades because he didn’t speak. He ended his portion of the performance by making reference to this episode and pulling what seemed to be an apple out of his jacket.

As a person who can’t dance, or at least has no rhythm, I was just star struck and surprised after he finished, because I was expecting him to do sort of stereotypical hip-hop moves, like two-steps, three-steps, I was imagining him touching his toes with one of his hands pressed firmly against the ground with a boombox beside him, but his dance was more like ballet to a beat. I could sense that he had experience in ballet, judging by how flexible he was, and how fluid his movements were, and how he could easily shift where he put his balance.

Watching the performances at the Kennedy Center gave me a sense of intercultural appreciation. I thought maybe I would just see one Japanese tap-dancer on  the stage tapping his toes as fast and rhythmic as he can and a gorgeous koto player, stringing her heart out, both by themselves. But both performances were very diverse. One of my favorite performers was  Alex Blake who played the bass during Kazu Kumagai’s tap dance. I loved how dedicated he was, almost falling out of his chair at one point (a point that admittedly made me giggle), showing his enthusiasm.

My first time at the Kennedy Center, will be something I’ll always remember, reminiscing about the enjoyment I experienced watching these performances.

Japanese Connections: Kazunori Kumagai

By Skyy Genies

Today October 18, 2017 was an extremely emotional and eye opening day. I was given the opportunity of witnessing a beautiful artistic performance from Kazunori Kumagai, a world renowned tap dancer from Sendai, Japan at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. My emotional journey started when we first arrived at the Kennedy Center, and we were lucky enough to be able to actually speak with Mr. Kumagai. He told us his story about how he was inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller when he was five and then became interested in tap dancing. When he was 18, he moved to New York City to study tap dancing among the best in the business.

fullsizeoutput_625c

The most touching aspects of his story to me were how he took in criticisms from his teachers and peers back in Japan when he said he wanted to be a tap dancer. Kazunori Kumagai was not afraid to follow his heart and disregard social expectations and opinions of him that may have led him down a path that he wasn’t happy with. Despite obstacles such as race that may have arisen in Mr. Kumagai’s path, he was able to receive praise and accolades for his determination to showcase his self expression. Additionally, since I traveled to Tohoku, Japan this summer, I was extremely inspired by Mr. Kumagai’s dedication to his hometown as he often returns to Japan to assist with the reconstruction process after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami, and raise awareness about the arts.

Then came his tap performance. Honestly speaking, before witnessing his performance, I didn’t think much of tap dancing. But boy, was I wrong. I don’t even know how many times I cried during his performance. His ability to tap in sync with the other instruments present during his performance simply amazed me. When we spoke to Mr. Kumagai earlier, he told us that tap dancing sounded like a conversation between his feet and other instruments. There is truly no better way to put that. The melody, rhythm, and balance of the performance sounded like a story that directly related to my life. I couldn’t help but feel my emotions well up. I was so amazed. After today’s experience, I learned a few new things:

  1. Don’t have opinions about something you’ve never experienced for yourself because it’s most likely wrong.
  2. Don’t let social expectations deter you from the path your heart is leading you down.
  3. And, never forget where you came from or who helped you get to where you are.