Against the Current – November 6, Japanese Hall
by Susanne Tabata
Against the Current, a co-production between the Vancouver Taiko Society and the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, took the stage on November 6 at the Japanese Hall on Alexander Street. It was at once a great piece of art and a reminder of the dispossession and reclamation of culture common to First Nations and Japanese Canadians.
While a stripped-down version of this performance work took place this past summer at the Powell Street Festival, it took a seated audience in a quiet historic building to be able to make sense of the story. Two interwoven cultures, both with a common love of the sea; unbowed by past historic injustices; standing together in song, dance, drumming and spoken word. All on the ground that once was home to their kin – the salmon as a metaphor for the lifecycle and journey home.
There are so many moving parts to this performance so we turned the tables on one of the creators of the work who is also the editor of The Bulletin, John Endo Greenaway, to ask him a few questions about this great piece of contemporary work.
How long did it take you to create this work?
Although there was big push in the two months before the show, the process before then was rather long and unhurried. You could say it meandered like a lazy stream, and then turned into a raging torrent. But seriously, it began about two years ago. We had our first work-in-progress showing of the taiko works at Katari Taiko’s 30th Anniversary concert at the Vancouver Playhouse last December. I actually missed that show because I was in hospital recovering from a sudden case of acute pancreatitis – thankfully my daughter Emiko was able to step in at the very last second and play my part. I guess my illness and recovery was in keeping with the theme of the show! When we premiered the piece at the Powell Street Festival most of the pieces were in place, but we added quite a bit of the non-taiko content for the Japanese Hall show, including adding in Grace Eiko Thomson as one the “voices” of the piece.
She was my personal favourite!
Me too! I’ve known Grace for a long time and worked with her in various capacities but never dreamed we’d share a stage together. Of all the performers, it was the biggest stretch for her and I’m so pleased so agreed to do it – she did a fabulous job!
What performers were featured in this performance?
There were about sixty performers all told, including five of Vancouver’s taiko groups; the Lil’wat family singing group Tzo’kam led by Russell Wallace; storyteller Rosemary Georgeson, who worked in the fishing industry for a long time; and Grace of course.
How were you able to have so many creative voices providing input into this work without losing your vision?
It can be difficult working with so many people, but, in this case, those cumulative voices ended up providing the vision for the piece, each one layered upon the other to create a multi-dimensional whole. To me that is the key to the power of the finished work – that sense of community. It wasn’t an intellectual or academic exercise, it was very real and honest. I don’t think there were a lot of egos to begin with, but if they existed, they were checked at the door. It was really a pleasure working with everyone.
Is Against the Current as you originally imagined it?
Yes and no. To be honest, the original vision was so amorphous and unstructured, that the final result was a pleasant surprise. We brought most of the performers together in July for the first time, not long before the Powell Street performance. Tzo’kam had worked with Sawagi Taiko before, but I had never worked with them, or with Rose. By the end of that rehearsal, I knew it would work, and I was very happy!
The relationship between our cultures could use more exploration. Do you have any ideas about that?
You know, to be honest, I’d never put that much thought into the relationship before this collaboration. As I worked on the script with Savannah Walling and teased out the various threads, it became clear that there is a lot of common ground, even though in some ways, the two cultures are very different. I hope that this was not just a one-off, and that we can continue to explore art-making together in the future.
Keep your hopes up that an encore performance of Against the Current will be programmed next May 2016 when Vancouver Asian Heritage Month will feature a Japanese Canadian theme.