BWW Review: Ninja Ballet Thrills with Explosive Martial Arts and Enchanting Live Music
As if a prelude to the Independence Day fireworks, Artistic Director/Choreographer Shoko Tamai's Ninja Ballet: "Ma" (Negative Space) debuting at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, explodes with a dynamic blend of Eastern and Western dance styles, theatrics and the elegance of classical ballet fused with thrilling martial arts fight choreography and live musical accompaniment featuring traditional instruments from Asian, Middle Eastern and Native American cultures that transport the viewer to another place and era.
The company was founded in 2017 by Japanese-born performer, teacher and choreographer Shoko Tamai, who has performed in leading venues and with top companies around the world, including: the Royal Opera House in London, Lincoln Center, Jacob's Pillow, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and with Cirque du Soleil at its inception. She studied martial arts with Jamie HJ Guan, trainer from Beijing Opera, and all of those eclectic elements have been combined to create Ninja Ballet, which the company describes as a new genre where "Swan Lake meets The Matrix". Fans of both are in for a lot of excitement as the multi-talented cast performs dance, acrobatics and storytelling with the array of weapons one expects to see in a samurai film, all with grace and ease. In Ninja Ballet one should expect the unexpected!
"Ma" opens with Sam Robbins, performer and origami artist, puppeteering a large black paper bird and using the pre-show speech as an invitation to the audience to "take a moment to be here and present" for "moments are ephemeral." And so the stage is set and Zopilote, the ancient Vulture God of Mayan legend who is the ruler of the negative space between creation and destruction, appears. Through the various disciplines and truly creative costuming by Christina Giannini, guided by the exquisite soundscapes, the story follows a young female ninja, Sabaru (played by Tamai) through a dream of a past life entrenched in mythology and magic as she treks through treacherous territory to track down her mortal enemy from a rival clan, Scorpion. Scorpion is portrayed by martial arts choreographer (and co-fight director of the show) Tony Ortiz, of Puerto Rican heritage who got into combat through "roughhousing' with male family members, then found a knack for it and transformed his hobby into a career. "Ma" explores themes of alternative dimensions, the natural world (as well as the abuse and preservation of it by human hands), mythical beliefs, symbology and life, death, forgiveness and unity. Music plays a major force in propelling the narrative through singing bowl, koto (a Japanese stringed instrument, played exquisitely by Kento Iwasaki Watanabe), oud, percussion, guitar and shamanistic resonance provided by Edwin Rodriguez's mastery of the Native American flute and spirit drum.
The story is engaging and each vignette has its own unique intrigue but there were notable, standout moments which are rarely seen executed so well on a live stage, especially one as space-restrictive as The Secret Theatre's black box-style venue. Origami artist Sam Robbins' charismatic enactment of the "Paper God", a new deity who creates a world from paper and bamboo by using a giant sheet of white paper which he folds into various forms and dances with, is utterly compelling and a charming delight to watch unfold.
But the real coup de grace is the riveting clash between Sabaru (Tamai) and Scorpion (Ortiz). The two martial arts experts perform chanbara (sword fighting) with such a level of exceptional skill and artistry it's as if a scene from Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, any of the Japanese samurai films or even combat anime episodes had come to life, only there are no edits, cutaways or special effects, just years of training and exceptional talent performed within inches of their lives in the intimate space.
Often fight choreography, even on a Broadway-level is a bit lacking and feels stiff or worst of all, cheesy. If such virtuosity can continue to be nurtured to grow and be displayed on stages across New York and beyond, then a whole new genre full of opportunity for dramatic expression could open up for the multi-talented creative team and performers who comprised Ninja Ballet. This fledgling company, only in its infancy but ever growing and expanding their ideas and execution, is certainly one to watch!
Ninja Ballet "Ma" (Negative Space) debuts June 28th-July 1st, 2018 at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City. For more information and to support further development of Ninja Ballet, please visit: www.ninjaballet.com
Pan Yu as Zopilote, the ancient Vulture God of Mayan legend. Photo by Thomas Wilson @thomaswilsonpics
Origami artist and performer Sam Robbins as the "Paper God." Photo by Thomas Wilson @thomaswilsonpics
Shoko Tamai and Tony Ortiz in Ninja Ballet "Ma" as the ninja Subaru and her rival, Scorpion. Photo by Thomas Wilson @thomaswilsonpics
Tony Ortiz (Scorpion) and Shoko Tamai (Subaru) in Ninja Ballet "Ma" with live musical accompaniment. Photo by Thomas Wilson @thomaswilsonpics
Top Photo Credit: Todd Muchow