By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Many people never heard of Kenichi Ebina before he was named the winner for Season 8 of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” but he’s no stranger to the spotlight.
Ebina, who is in the midst of an AGT national tour that includes L.A.’s Greek Theatre on Thursday, has been performing his signature combination of hip-hop, martial arts, modern dance and magic for well over a decade in the U.S. and has his own group, Ebina Performing Arts.
Among other accomplishments, the self-taught dancer/choreographer founded BiTriP (Bi-Triangle Performance), an all-Japanese hip-hop group that won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater; won the Apollo’s grand championship again as a solo performer; did a full-evening solo show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; worked with Cirque du Soleil; and performed at private parties for such notables as Madonna and the royal family of Morocco.
The producers of AGT asked him to audition for the show, and he went on to impress both the judges and the public with every performance. Still, when finalists were narrowed down to him, country singer Jimmy Rose and comedian Taylor Williamson, Ebina kept thinking that one of the others would be chosen and was surprised that he won, he said in a recent telephone interview.
He may be self-effacing, but one thing he doesn’t suffer from is stage fright. “I don’t get nervous when I perform,” he said. “When I talk (during a speaking engagement) I get nervous, but when I perform, I’ve been performing for many years, so there’s no way that I can get nervous.”
AGT was much more of a challenge than the Apollo, he said, “because every time I have to do a different thing. ‘Showtime at the Apollo,’ you have to the same thing over and over … You cannot change your performance.”
A unique aspect of his AGT numbers was the use of digital projections that allowed Ebina to dance and interact with other characters, all played by him, and with all kinds of visual effects. One number placed him in a giant video game, while another had him squaring off against a pre-recorded mirror image of himself.
“I always had an idea that I wanted to do something like that,” he said. “The ‘Matrix’ performance and the mirror one which I did in semifinals, those two were from previous repertoire … but others, like the video game and opera kind of thing (with) many different characters, I always had an idea but it costs (too much). I couldn’t do it before. This time I threw the idea to AGT … They kind of helped me.”
AGT’s budget provided the green-screen technology and other elements that Ebina needed to bring his vision to life.
Since the AGT finale in September, he has appeared on such talk shows as “Arsenio” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and is recognized wherever he goes.
His win was also big news in his native Japan. TV Tokyo’s “Crossroad” has just broadcast a segment about his U.S. tour. “I was surprised … much bigger influence than I expected,” he commented.
Born in 1974, Ebina grew up in the Tokyo and Osaka areas and moved to Connecticut as a student when he was 20. He now divides his time between the U.S. and Japan, where his wife and daughter live.
He has no formal training as a dancer and learned his moves from “watching videos, movies, clubs … That’s why I call (my style) ‘dance-ish.’”
Also in demand as a motivational speaker, Ebina gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk in Monterey in 2007 and more recently did a corporate event in Miyazaki.
He explained some of the ideas that he tries to convey to Japanese companies: “The mentality is it’s difficult if you go out of Japan, but my idea is Japan has quality … Standards are very high. They make a good product, so they should be proud of themselves, except they don’t know how to market themselves. That’s why they don’t do well in other countries … They’re kind of afraid … but it’s much easier than they think. If they do good in Japan, they can do good in other countries.”
Ebina uses himself as an example. “I’m not good at anything, any kind of dance or magic … I’m okay, but I’m good at how I put those things together … So you don’t need to have top quality, but how you present it is more important, something the Japanese are not good at … If you try to be best, it’s going to be hard because you have a lot of competitors, but if you try to be unique or only one of a kind … it becomes so much easier.”
The AGT tour, which included a show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Wednesday, ends on Nov. 17 in Westbury, N.Y. After that, Ebina plans to “tour with a one-man show in Vegas and New York and all over the place. That’s one thing … As a director, I want to direct a show Off-Broadway.”
Although he was already well established in his field, AGT has made him a household name and will undoubtedly open up many more opportunities. One of his biggest advocates is AGT judge Howie Mandel, who said, “This year more than any other year, we discovered a talent like no other.”