The first weekend of November marked the ninth annual Japan Arts Matsuri (JAM) in New York, this year at the Theater for the New City in the East Village. With about 30 volunteers and a handful of business sponsors, JAM put on an excellent show for roughly a thousand people over the three exciting days.
The entryway and lobby of the theater was crammed with tables selling everything from okashi and yakisoba to clothes and handicrafts, though most people in the know went directly for the Sendai miso cream puffs, and for good reason. There were even two carnival games: a simple one involving throwing a plastic katana at prizes, and an incomprehensible one where people poked little cookies with needles for some reason. Nearly every table was also raising money for earthquake/tsunami relief.
Every day of the three-day matsuri had music and dance performances, but Saturday was Talent Night, where performers could compete for a special invitation to perform at next year’s JAM. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Talent Night, which was good, because it was as wildly erratic as any cross-section of modern Japanese music and dance should be. The first act I caught was Robin’s Egg Blue, a cheerful acoustic pop group. They were followed by a band called Firesign, which was meant to be metal, though any spell they cast dissipated immediately when, as they left the stage, one of the emcees decided to reassure us that they were all very polite in person. After that there were modern and traditional dances, a gospel singer, a karaoke cover of Cee Lo Green’s smash hit (the “Forget You” version, of course), and a fascinating collaboration between a belly dancer and a beatboxer.
The show was billed as being like Amateur Night at the Apollo, and there was some resemblance. The acts were short, and before each intermission the audience chose their favorite via applause. Looking at the lineup, it occurred to me that JAM’s offering was a lot more diverse than anything I’ve seen at Amateur Night. One of the matsuri’s goals is to share Japanese culture with Americans, and the lesson to take from Talent Night is that culturally, the Japanese really are into everything. It also occurred to me that the power to vote by cheering for a performer we liked meant a lot less without the power to impeach them by booing.
I came to Talent Night specifically to meet with JET alumna Kirsten Phillips (Niigata-ken, 2005-08), a member of the Yosakoi Dance Project 10tecomai. The first impression she makes is everything a JET is supposed to be: energetic, cheerful, with a kind of wide-eyed enunciation that makes everything sound exciting. She went directly from teaching in Japan to teaching special education in New York, and it immediately seems like she would be good at it.
Phillips started dancing in a Yosakoi group while in Niigata, and entirely by accident. Her school had a Yosakoi club, which she discovered the way many of us discovered such things: while wandering around the school during her free time. After some practice, she was hooked, and when she came back to New York, the melancholy of reverse culture shock led her to the Internet to search for a local troupe. She was lucky. Though Yosakoi clubs are not unheard of in the U.S. she says they are mainly recreational. 10tecomai, however, is specifically focused on performances, and you can catch them at just about any matsuri within striking distance of the Five Boroughs.
In all fairness, I should say that I had never heard of Yosakoi before my trip to Talent Night, and I had no idea what to expect. My brief research told me only that it was a blend of traditional and modern styles, but I could have said the same thing about the Spam musubi on sale outside the theater. It turns out that “traditional and modern” is exactly what Yosakoi is. It has some of the aggressive swinging and gesticulating I remember from my school’s taiko club, but also uses the gentler sweeping motions of a more sedate bon odori. 10Tecomai throws in some more modern moves, plus a little popping and locking for good measure, all of which Phillips was glad to demonstrate in the theater’s crowded lobby. According to her, it all began in the ’50s in Shikoku to entertain tourists, and has been spreading ever since. It’s not hard to see why, since the basics are simple enough for anyone to get into, but there seem to be few restrictions on how far a dancer can take the genre. 10tecomai’s version is definitely a crowd-pleaser, making them the hands down winner of the Talent Night competition.
The question the members of 10tecomai get the most is not about what 10tecomai means. Phillips told me that everyone asks if they teach workshops. As it happens, they will for the first time on November 13th and 20th at Ripley Grier Studios in Hell’s Kitchen. Full details are on www.10tecomai.com. You can also catch them at their rehearsal space in Chinatown (55 Christie Street, 3rd floor) on Saturday nights from 7:30 to 10 p.m., or pretty much anywhere there is a hanami.
For more on JAM and its sponsor JaNet, visit http://japanesenetwork.org/en/amnet-jam.