Fan dancers twirled gracefully. Kimono-clad samurai practiced swordfighting. A princess celebrated the coming of spring and a shogun's birthday.

Scenes from ancient Japan played out in a Vinemont gymnasium as the Birmingham Suzuki Violinists performed music and drama for elementary school students Thursday.

The troupe of eight violin students led by director LaDonna Smith came to Vinemont Elementary School at the request of Principal Jane Teeter through a grant program of the Birmingham International Festival. This year, the festival celebrates the culture of the "Land of the Rising Sun."

"I thought it would be a good cultural experience for the children," Teeter said. "We don't have a lot of things like this in Vinemont."

The half-hour performance titled "Blue Dragon Day at Higan" opened with Japanese folk music and a tale of the first kite.

"One popular Japanese legend tells of a fisherman whose hat was blown off by a gust of wind," Smith narrated as the colorfully-attired students acted out the story. "Intrigued by his hat's ability to fly, he retrieved it and attached a length of string. In doing so, he created the first kite."

Next, the shogun, played by Benjamin Brooks, welcomed samurai Chapney Holloway to the festival of Higan, which celebrates the coming of spring.

Most of the performers are homeschool students from the Birmingham area. Vinemont was the third of eight such visits they will make to schools in Jefferson, Talladega and Cullman counties.

In addition to violins, the group played on traditional Japanese instruments like the shamisen, a stringed instrument resembling a narrow banjo; the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute; taiko drums and temple bells.

The performance included a fight with wooden swords and a discussion of the samurai philosophy between Holloway and Tori Malavet, who played a prince.

"You must use your skill to preserve life and your sword to cut down the enemy within," the elder Holloway told the young prince.

The conclusion of the show was the entrance of the "auspicious blue dragon."

"I think it's a very unique learning experience for the students," Smith said. Next year's featured country for the International Festival will be Czechoslovakia.

"I think the children loved it," Teeter said after the show. "Some of them were just enthralled with everything that was going on."

Vinemont fifth-graders Katie Thompson and Rebecca Chandler said the blue dragon was their favorite part of the performance.

"I thought it was a very cultural experience," Chandler said. "It showed a lot about how Japan did things differently than we did."

Violinist Abigail Holloway, who narrated much of the show, said the performers enjoy bringing a foreign culture to students who might not experience it otherwise.

"The kids enjoying it is probably one of the best things about it, seeing their smiles," Holloway said.

The drama will be presented to the public at 3 p.m. May 14 at the Virginia Samford Theater, 1116 26th Street S., in Birmingham.

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