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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007

RYOHEI KONDO

Flying high and free


Special to The Japan Times

On a sweltering summer day recently, members of the Condors dance troupe were pouring with sweat as they practiced for their upcoming national tour. Choreographer and lead dancer, Ryohei Kondo, was in the center of a circle of the dancers, who were voicing their opinions freely.

News photo
Ryohei Kondo, founder of the all-male Condors dance troupe © HARU

Currently enjoying near-idol status in Japan, the Condors attract a lively following that reaches beyond dance fans, and tickets for their shows are among the hottest around. Condors began in 1996, when six male friends got together and decided to create a one-off dance performance which Kondo, now 38, says was for their own enjoyment — no one expected they would take off. Even today, some of the growing troupe still have day jobs: high-school art teacher, office worker, bar owner, secondhand-clothes shop owner and university lecturer.

Still, the group have been making waves in the contemporary Japanese dance world and have performed in New York and Los Angeles, Shanghai, Singapore, Bali and Melbourne, and Central and South America. Most recently the troupe returned from a successful tour of Europe — their first trip there. Kondo spoke to The Japan Times about how he got involved in dance before Condors' upcoming tour.

Because of your father's job you were brought up in South America as a child. How did you feel when you got back to Japan at junior high-school age?

When I was small, I played soccer every day in South America. So, naturally, when I came back to Japan I joined a soccer club at school. However, I was so surprised about the hierarchy between older and younger students. The couldn't even touch a ball for a year. It was shocking for me, and I thought they would never have any fun or get better at soccer if they continued that system. Everyone wearing the same school uniform was weird as well, and I wondered why the students had to do it — though we Condors wear school uniforms on stage (laughs).

I took a course at Yokohama National University to be an elementary school gymnastics teacher. I didn't want to be a salaryman and an eager-beaver employee of a big trading company like my father.

How did you get into dance?

When I was young there was no chance for boys to dance at high school, though now that has changed. That was so frustrating because I was fond of moving my body. At university, I took a dance lesson and enjoyed it so much that I joined the dance circle there.

I traveled in Europe for a year before I graduated, just wandering around without any particular purpose. That was because all my classmates were getting ready to move on and be teachers, but I thought I couldn't teach children anything as I didn't have enough experience in the outside world. After my trip I realized I didn't need to get a job immediately at all — and that I definitely wouldn't be a teacher. So I opted to just do part-time jobs and give myself time to think about my future life.

When it got so I had too much time to think, I started Condors with close friends. I didn't have any ambitions to be a major group or make money.

Why not?

I never thought it would continue 10 years. There were six members at first, and we had a chance to present a show at a small dance venue called the Session House in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. We didn't even have our name at that point, we were just having fun putting it together. But so many people came to see us that it was a huge success and lots of professionals — the lighting crew, backstage staff and producers at the Session House — urged us to continue. After that, Condors somehow became famous.

Most of the members have other full- or part-time jobs. Do you plan to audition new members?

First-off, I don't like the audition system, probably for the same reason I don't like school uniforms. I don't accept the roles of a judge and an applicant, and I don't think that high-low relationship ever changes in a group. The additional members of Condors were not chosen in that way. I met Kojiro Yamamoto in a bar abroad, and he wanted to make something with us, so he became a member. That's all.

Now, we come together for a performance and do it, and then each person gets back to their main things. If someone can't make it, we do it without them. That's our style.

For each stop of your upcoming tour, "Summer Time Blues," there is a subtitle, such as "Robert Johnson Special" and "B.B. King Special." Is there any special meaning?

No. The program content is almost the same for each place: some dance, a short skit, music and talking and a short play. We added those subtitles to inspire and encourage ourselves (laughs).

During your U.S. tour in 2001, a New York Times reviewer commented, "Condors came across like a Japanese Monty Python."

I was so pleased. I personally love Monty Python, and I thought we hardly deserved that praise.

How were the audiences in London, Paris and Rome?

There were different reactions in each country. At Sadler's Wells in London, quite high-brow arts fans came to see what they thought the latest Japanese contemporary dance scene had to offer. In Rome, we performed in an ordinary-type studio, so a lot of people came along in a more casual spirit. In Paris, we performed at the Japan Culture Center, and most of the audiences were fundamentally fans of Japanese culture.

"Summer Time Blues" runs Sept. 20-24 at The Theater Apple, a 5-min. walk from JR Shinjuku Station. It then tours: Hiroshima, Aug. 22; Osaka, Aug. 24-25; and Sendai, Aug. 31. The Condors' first album, "Mujoken Kofuku (Unconditional Surrender)," is out now. For more information call (03) 5272-0991 or visit www.condors.jp


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