Life is a cabaret for Dan Blow, the colorful co-owner of Hartford's celebrated West End fashion house, Japanalia Eiko.
Especially now that Blow, a shaker-and-doer on the Hartford art scene, has tailored one of the most varied cabaret series Hartford has seen.
The fashion designer has taken Japanalia's policy of presenting periodic musical events in its Café Eiko, and altered it into a full-blown cabaret series that weaves together solid Hartford roots with a Big Apple vibe.
In performances spread out through much of 2011, Blow's cabaret sports a dazzling variety of styles: Broadway, Latin, bebop, blues, modern jazz, folk, world string music, homages to the American Songbook and even an upbeat celebration of Andrews Sisters' kitsch and disco divas' glitz.
The series ranges from the silken stylings of vocalist Audrey Lavine to the rough-hewn delta sound of the XY Blues Band.
Blow has recruited a host of high-quality vocalists, including the classy chanteuse, Baby Jane Dexter. Hartford-based jazz vocalists include Nicki Mathis, Dianne Mower and the young, sensational Dana Lauren. Other notable jazz singers are bop scatmeister Giacomo Gates and the bluesy Antoinette Montague.
The series also highlights such instrumentalists as the Mexican-born, Hartford painter and guitarist, Carlos Hernandez Chavez, and the emerging, Connecticut saxophone phenom Noah Preminger.
The store's intimate performance space is stocked with clothes by day. By night, goods can be cleared out and the room transformed into a cabaret venue.
"We can wheel out all the clothes and break everything down in an hour and stage a ballet if we want. It can be a performance space. It is also a gallery," Blow says pointing to the contemporary paintings on the wall at Café Eiko, "and it can be a party place, a theater, or whatever you want it to be."
With its array of Japanese-inspired apparel, paintings and sculptures, Japanalia, at Whitney Street near Farmington Avenue, is sandwiched between the CVS building it is housed in and the nearby Moe's Midtown Restaurant.
Comfortably, there's enough room for 40 or so patrons sitting cabaret-style at tables close to a raised, portable bandstand.
An ancient parlor mini-grand piano catches the eye, and is easy on the ear, since Blow keeps it regularly tuned, a practice not all club owners adhere to.
A large black curtain seals out light and adds a touch of theater, even a sense of escapism for concert-goers who show up with libations of their own choosing. (It's BYOB, but Café Eiko volunteers will pour for you.) Overhead, track lighting illuminates Blow's luminous guest performers.
Blow's business partner, co-designer and ex-wife, Eiko Sakai, a native of Japan, can be seen at concerts in Café Eiko, looking regal at a corner table, chatting with friends and admirers.
Eiko's father was a tailor. As an infant, she was whisked away from Hiroshima just a few days before that Japanese city was obliterated Aug. 6, 1945 by an atom bomb.
Eiko and Blow first met when Dan was living in Japan and teaching at an English-language school, where she was working in a language laboratory.
Dan, who grew up in Burlington, Vt., went to Japan in his early 20s with a friend who traveled there with the Up with People troupe. What was only going to be a temporary stay turned into nearly 10 years.
He met, courted and married Eiko. They had a son, Tei, who's now a composer, musician and photographer, and in Tokyo in 1976 launched their art and business partnership. The designing duo set up business in Hartford in 1981.
Immersing himself in Japan's art and folk art, customs and cuisine, Dan experienced a flood of influences that have profoundly shaped his fashion design.
Blow had been smitten by the theater, costumes and design from boyhood. "I had been putting on shows since I was 10. I'm a frustrated chorus boy since day one. I always wanted to be on Broadway," Blow says.
Because he had been so focused on clothing and design — he even started his own business in Vermont right after graduating from high school in 1970 — Blow, a voracious autodidact, bypassed college. Instead, after three years of being in business in Vermont, he took that leap to Japan.
Japan gave handsomeyoung American a taste of La Dolce Vita, when he became a successful male model. (One of his students, a fashion photographer, took pictures of him and, without his knowledge, submitted them to an agent.) Later, he — much to his own amazement — landed a starring role on Japanese television.
The 1970s were the best of times for a tall Westerner like Blow to get into modeling in Japan. European and American designers were cracking the Japanese market. Japan's rich and nouveaux riches had a yen for everything Western.
"It was just a fantasy…an unbelievable thing. And it just snowballed like crazy," he says.
Next, the show biz-loving American was doing musicals, TV commercials and voice-overs. "They'd say, 'Can you tap dance?' 'Can you sing?' I'd say, 'Sure.' "
His dizzying run culminated with a gig on "The Everyday Life of a Housewife," which, he says, was the Japanese equivalent of "The Today Show."
"I did the Friday segment for two or three seasons. At first, I just stood around like Mr. Clean, doing nothing. But by the second or third episode, I had lines and became part of a little team, introducing commercials or travel sections. I sang, danced, did everything and even worked in production," he says.
But Blow doesn't really like to dwell on the past when one can savor the moment. So he'd much rather speak about his new cabaret series.
Two key elements in the cabaret experience at Café Eiko, he says, are intimacy and spontaneity, qualities you sense as soon as you're ushered in by a Café Eiko volunteer.
"It's very, very intimate. You sit right in the performer's face," Blow says. "When people first come in they say, 'Oh, my God!' That's because we make it look like a little, old supper club.
"It's sort of like having a little theme party. It's almost like doing the prom. We bill it as the Japanalia party in the kitchen," he said. "We're not really interested in becoming a major theater or venue. We're just having a party."
JAPANALIA EIKO is at Whitney St., Hartford.
Here's the rest of Japanalia's 2011 season lineup: Nicki Mathis and her quartet, Feb.19; The Glamour Girls Show, Feb. 26; the Seth Lewis Group, March 5; Baby Jane Dexter, April 9; Giacomo Gates, May 7; Antoinette Montague and Ensemble, May 14; Dianne Mower, Diva & Dudes, June 11; XY Eli Blues Band, July 9; Carlos Hernandez Chavez Y Amigos, Sept. 17; Audrey Lavine, Oct. 15; Dana Lauren with Noah Preminger, Nov. 5; and Judy Handler & Mark Levesque with Genevieve Rose, Nov. 12.
Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $35. Reservations: 860-232-4677 and 860-523-1436. Information: http://www.japanalia.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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