Jun. 29 2022 at Casa de la Cultura
Ninja Ballet “ANATOINSTRUMENT” Review
Tulum, Mexico. A crowd of tourists and locals brave the summer heat, hungry for music, art, and dance, on their way to the Casa de la Cultura, a community arts center in the heart of the city. In fact, the entire community of Tulum has turned up for this night. They’ve gathered to see the newest project of New York-based dance company Ninja Ballet, titled ‘ANATOINSTRUMENT,’ a choreography by Shoko Tamai.
Every seat has been filled, and so the audience must stand and wait, while volunteers collect extra chairs from the fire-dancing variety act finishing up just outside the venue. Performances are happening all week as part of the Primera Festival Casa de Cultura Tulum, but on this night, Ninja Ballet commands the sold-out main stage.
Founded in 2017 in New York City by Artistic Director Shoko Tamai, Ninja Ballet has presented work internationally at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the 77th International Choreographer’s Festival with Dance Forms Pro in 2019, and was nominated for a New York Innovative Theater Award for Outstanding Choreography for “The Tempest” at the Plaxall Gallery in New York City.
In April 2021, Shoko Tamai produced a one-woman performance at venue Sakura-za in Japan. She returned to New York City to receive the Immigrant Artist Performance Award from Anita’s Way in June, and in October 2021, she was awarded a City Artist Corps Grant in October for her project ‘Abun-Dances’, at Dixon Place. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including BroadwayWorld, Dance Enthusiast magazine,Metro US, TimeOut New York, and Ola Magazine (Mexico); on television at NHK, YBS, UTY(JAPAN); and on radio at iHeartRadio (NYC), and FM FUJI radio (Japan). Ninja Ballet continues to make history by creating new roles for powerful women leaders in the field of classical ballet, a field where women continue to be misrepresented, allowed only to portray the role of pure and perfect girls, even into their forties. Ninja Ballet invites all women to be sensual, wild, and empowered to voice their own story in 2022 and beyond.
Lights up. A tall and imposing dancer spins into center stage, and with a sweep of his cape, tosses his head like a proud stallion, as the background image of an Italian villa in the sunset fades up on the backdrop. The sharp sound of wood blocks split the air, summoning a graceful dancer with a hand fan, and a leaping ballerino, to gently lift her up. The last to arrive is a woman in a glowing golden gown, in the style of the Italian Renaissance. She circles her partner, and with one final flourish, the accordion and drums come alive, and the dancers fly into their ballet.
In “ANATOINSTRUMENT”, Shoko Tamai uses choreography to draw comparisons between musical instruments and the human anatomy. Alongside classical ballet from Europe in the 15th century, the program showed the everyday ritual of work life and hidden teachings of ninjutsu and martial arts from the same time period in Japan. Individual scenes explored traditional Japanese and Mexican culture with folklore, music, and Aztec dance dating back to colonial times.
Music is medicine, and the live soundtrack was provided by several multi-talented musicians. Moises Coatlnahuitzin, on handpan, percussion and Mayan trumpet, played powerful and complex rhythms that reverberated in my chest, sometimes on three or more instruments at the same time. Teutli Miranda, on African harp and native flute, balanced out the feminine energy with her ancestral singing and soothing melodies, for moments of peace and tranquility. Ariel Palacio, on accordion, breathed new life into classical and traditional music, changing tempo on the fly and keeping the audience guessing. And a special intimate performance on ukulele by Xochitl Jacobo had the audience singing, clapping, and snapping their fingers, as she paid tribute to Pachamama, “Mother Earth.” Rounding out the cast was featured poet Yulio Lara Rodriguez, who delivered a heartfelt poem in the interlude, and also tended to the live fire ceremony onstage.
For this project, Shoko Tamai collaborated with lighting and projection designer Matt Reynolds, who previously worked with Ninja Ballet in New York City and Edinburgh. Together, they created a moving backdrop projection that set each scene in a new, fantastic locale, transporting the audience from the advent of ballet in Italy and France, to the ricefields of Japan and the beaches of Mexico. The images cleverly interacted with the performers onstage, as in a solo by Alejandra Rivera, performing with a balloon on a string. She lets it fly up and away, and it appears to drift off into the distance on the projector screen. Other scenes depicted road traffic, architecture, the outdoors and nature, and a simultaneously filmed and live performance of the fire dance. Matt Reynolds' contribution was made possible in part by funding from the University of Alabama College Academy for Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (CARSCA), Capstone International, and the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Reynolds’ lighting design used deep reds and purples, evoking the sense of being near the campfire, as if the dancers and audience were huddling together in a semi-circle, with the sacred fire in the center of the stage. He worked together with set designer Pedro Cuni, and they succeeded in creating a modern look at an ancient tradition. Cuni also provided some of the visual designs for projection, including animated images of the heart, lungs, and spine.
The dancers were exceptional, authentic in their gesture, and expressive within their movement. They gracefully slipped back and forth into different mannerisms and identities - European, Asian, American, Indigenous. Their interactions with the live musicians were also uniquely choreographed. In one duet, Ariel Palacio plays an unfamiliar Bach Orchestra Suite No. 3 on the accordion as Shoko Tamai performs a balletic bo staff routine. The unusual combination goes deeper, as Palacio transitions into a Milonga style of play. This prompts Ms. Tamai to speed up, hitting the Milonga accents of the accordion with her pointework and staff strikes, resulting in a unique experience of Japanese martial arts through a lively South American tempo. This kind of call-and-response between music and dance from Asia and South America was a delight to witness, and the crowd cheered extra loudly for this gem.
The company’s artistry and athleticism positively shined in the finale, where Xochitl Jacobo led a traditional Aztec dance using foot rattles, handheld percussion and weapons. In this section, a steady choreography of stomps and turns gradually builds as it repeats. It starts to move faster, and the pace becomes frenetic, driven by the overwhelming drumming of Moises. Suddenly, the dancers stomp the ground, and the loudest cheer cracks the air, causing the audience to jump to their feet, bursting into applause for a standing ovation! It was a sincere, cathartic moment, as the performers were able to release all their hard work, preparation, and love of their dance and culture into the air with a collective shout. Featuring Xochitl Jacobo, Alejandra Rivera, Shoko Tamai, Paul Jovanski, Samuel Roga, and Ariel Palacio.
The costume designs by Lassah evoked natural earth tones and comfortable material. Usually, ballet companies make use of fancy, embellished costumes to tell stories about royalty, but the wardrobe for this show felt more intimate, and brought the audience closer to the performers, as if they were all coming from the same place, as one people. Additional wardrobe featuring 15th century period dress design was provided by A. Christina Giannini.
There were many standout performances, including the breathtaking African harp interludes of Teutli Miranda; a pas de deux between Shoko Tamai and Alejandra Rivera, portraying the fox from Japanese folklore and the deer from Mexican mythology; and a contact improvisation sequence between Samuel Roga and Paul Jovanski. But the piece that stood out the most to me was the pas de trois by Alejandra Rivera, Paul Jovanski, and Shoko Tamai. In this scene, three dancers sit, stand, and stretch, originating all of their movements from the spine, bending back into stillness, and forward into expansion. It was beautiful to see the potential of the human body amplified to its limit, and the power of activating the spine. Watching the dancers move made me feel in my mind and body a tactile sensation of how all their vertebrae were shifting and re-aligning into the proper position. This kind of dance inspires the viewer to stretch their own spine, to feel the pleasure of moving up, down, and sideways through the back, and feel better posture and health because of it. It reminded us that we can all benefit from experiencing transformative dance, movement therapy, and breathing.
At the end of the show, Artistic Director Shoko Tamai delivered her message to the audience, which was the hope that she could motivate this community in Tulum to create art collectively and inspire the next generation of artists to follow the path of abundance through performing arts in Tulum. I hope that her message resonates with everyone who saw the show that night, because the time is now for artists to carry on tradition once more. In this modern age, we need to be prepared to receive that ageless wisdom, celebrate the joy of dance, and realize the power of our own ANATOINSTRUMENT!