By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment
It goes down on a string, then (hopefully) comes back up. That’s it.
Or so we’ve been led to believe.
World yo-yo champion Tomonari Ishiguro does things with the ancient toy that not only defies logic, it strains credibility.
Known internationally simply as Black (a portion of his surname “black stone”), he is one of the featured performers in “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities,” the 35th production from Cirque du Soleil, the Canada-based group that revolutionized the very concept of circus entertainment.
The show is currently under the big top at Dodger Stadium and runs through Feb. 7.
“Before I picked up a yo-yo, I felt that I had no talent, no confidence,” Black said while preparing for a performance of “Kurios” last week. “After I became quite good at it, I began to trust myself, to feel that I can do anything.”
Seeing Black at work, you’ll likely agree that he indeed can do just about anything with a yo-yo. Countless online videos are available, showing his prowess and sheer artistry. Many of his invented tricks are commonplace among yo-yo enthusiasts, and a few have become compulsory elements in international competitions.
In “Kurios,” Black is one of the curios in a magical cabinet belonging to the Seeker, who is certain that there exists an alternate universe where the unbelievable and the amazing are real.
As the master of time, Black spins his pocket watches in all directions, speeding up and slowing down time at will.
The show is the first Cirque du Soleil to have its artistic base in fact, rather than a fantasy world. The unmistakable trappings of the Industrial Revolution abound, giving the production a feel of the “steam punk” style.
A native of Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, a 14-year-old Ishiguro was among the legions of youngsters swept up in a boom in yo-yo popularity.
“It was the first thing I was good at in my life,” he recalled. “I learned some tricks and they were pretty cool, so that was my motivation.”
It was at a Cirque du Soleil show in 2003 that Black began to look beyond the purely mechanical aspects of yo-yoing.
“I went to see ‘Dralion,’ and I was amazed by a juggler in the show. He performed to music, in a magical atmosphere, and I realized this wasn’t just acrobatics, it was art,” Black said. “At that point, I knew I wanted to do the same kind of thing with a yo-yo.”
In 2009, Black wowed Cirque du Soleil scouts with his talent, and after performing in several limited events, he was asked to join the cast of “Kurios” four years later.
“There are many challenges to performing this way,” Black said about the Cirque experience. “Because of the way the audience surrounds you, you need to choreograph your performance to all sides, deciding which direction to throw, or from which angle your tricks can best be seen.”
Black also needed to update his hardware for “Kurios.”
“If I use a standard-sized yo-yo, the audience wouldn’t be able to see it well. I needed something larger that still wasn’t too heavy.”
Many professional yo-yos are made of aluminum, but even that posed a weight problem for the size Black required for his act. His solution was to have a set of custom yo-yos custom made in Tottori, Japan, using a special magnesium alloy that provided superior durability but is far lighter than aluminum.
During the Rafu interview, he disassembled one of his performance yo-yos, showing how the butterfly sides, the bearings, the axle and string all fit together.
“I’ve put all of my essence into building this yo-yo,” he said.
Black’s passion has surpassed the boundaries of yo-yo-tricks. He has parlayed his motivation into helping others define their dreams and bring them to fruition. He has twice been asked to speak at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, global meetings created to further the spread of creative ideas.
“I was asked to give a TED talk not because I’m a yo-yo champion,” he explained. “Most yo-yoers cannot make a living doing this. When I started, I thought I could help make the yo-yo world better.
“With the success I have had, including how I found motivation, I realize that maybe I can help make society better. If I can maybe light a fire in kids to find their own passion at a young age, to improve their confidence, I think that makes the world better as a whole.”
–Rafu staff writer Ichiro Shimizu contributed to this story.
Cirque du Soleil’s “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities” performs under the big top at Dodger Stadium through Feb. 7. Tickets from $50 to $165 can be purchased online at cirquedusoleil.com/kurios or by calling (877) 924-7783.