Rehearsals, production planning, marketing – these are typical ways that performers prepare for a new show. Doing an 18 day, 400 kilometer spiritual walk on the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain? Not so typical. And yet, that’s exactly what Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe did six weeks before the premiere of their new original taiko production.
Michelle and Toru are not just professional and artistic partners in their new taiko company, UNIT SOUZOU. They have been married for 13 years. That complex relationship is the basis for 88: Hachi Hachi, the company’s first original production, which will debut October 2-4, 2015 at Zoomtopia, Studio 2 in SE Portland.
In preparing for their innovative taiko production, Michelle and Toru decided to take a number of artistic risks. Chief among them was the Camino de Santiago walk, a historical pilgrimage route to St. James in northwestern Spain, then to Finisterre believed to be the “end of the known world.” Michelle and Toru walked the path as a spiritual artistic practice to delve into their relationship.
Though they knew the walk would be a great challenge and that it was an unconventional way to prepare for a show, the couple learned more than they could have imagined.
The trip was physically and mentally arduous, their feet “crying every night.” Yet each morning they chose to get up and begin another 6-8 hours of walking, Michelle described. For 18 days, their lives stripped down to the daily task of moving forward carrying everything needed on their backs, Michelle and Toru “could not take for granted the simple connection we have chosen as partners.”
In the span of three weeks, the walk became a “miniature version of life” Toru said, of their personal journeys and their relationship. Not just their lives, but also a study of other walking partners and how they negotiated the long path: some walking together, others separating and then reconnecting, most having to compromise in some way.
The culmination of the Camino experience is a fundamental through line for 88: Hachi Hachi, an intimate taiko duet about Michelle and Toru’s multidimensional relationship.
“Hachi Hachi has everything to do with us. This show is a bold new step to creating work that is personally authentic,” Michelle said. The duet intricately weaves together taiko, dance and theatre, exploring relationship, intimacy and lineage.
In other efforts to broaden their artistic inspiration, the duo brought local multi-media theater artist Susan Banyas on board as director. Banyas is known for blending dance, theater, storytelling and music. They are also working with Eric Nordstrom on contact improvisation and Jeff Forbes, Drammy award winning lighting designer.