The Avant-Garde Performance of Sankai Juku4 min read

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A Dance Review by Eury Chang
Published in 16.1

Date: November 5 and 6, 2010
Location: The Vancouver Playhouse, as part of DanceHouse series

Photo credit: Carlos de las Piedras

It was truly an occasion to witness world-renowned Sankai Juku in their touring work, entitled Tobari: As if in an Inexhaustible Flux. DanceHouse, in co-production with Theatre de la Ville (Paris, France), Kitakyushu Performing Arts Centre (Fukuoka, Japan) and Sankai Juku (Tokyo, Japan), together proved that there is a growing appetite for avant-garde performance in Vancouver. Known as the vanguard of second-generation butoh companies, Sankai Juku was founded in 1975 by Ushio Amagatsu, who continues to lead the company as Director, Designer and Choreographer 36 years later. For two nights in late November of 2010, West Coast audiences became privy to the reasons why Amagatsu was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Cultural Ministry, and the Geijutu Sensho Prize from the Japanese government.

A large black oval platform sits in the middle of the stage. The lone figure atop the circular set piece is covered in thick white rice powder, a dressing commonly used by butoh dancers. He is reaching out to space as if grabbing for the apple of life—an homage to the sky gods. He is a metaphoric, powerful, and potent character presented before our eyes, soon joined by other dancers dressed in translucent white robes. Together they look like a gathering of monks. Everyone in the show has their place and everything is considered, with no excess. The execution of every hand gesture and foot step is measured, methodical, and flawless. As the sequences of choreography unfolds before our eyes, we see dancers moving across the stage in side profile. Their arms are raised with a 45 degree bend at the elbows like Greek bas-relief statues come to life; of course, we know they’re human to the naked eye but they exude a quality that makes them seem otherworldly and enchanting, unlike mere mortals. Like Japanese minimalism in design, the impact of these characters is achieved with seemingly little effort. In another scene, a lone figure wears a chiffon-like sarong. He too, chalked in white powder, looks like a statue of moving clay, coming to life and sensing the space around him with a zen-like fashion. Looking up to the ceiling, there are 1,000 twinkling lights, a galaxy beyond the playing space. Now, four men circle around the stage like primal beasts. The dancers’ bodies—in the absence of any excessive staging or props—become the focal point. Somehow, the men of Sankai Juku exude confidence without being overly expressive. There is a definite abstraction to the themes of gravity, space, and time. We get to experience the world that the dancers have breathed into existence and created for us—tonight, there’s no suspension of disbelief.

In one solo scene, Amagatsu is standing centre stage facing the audience. He opens an imaginary door, looking out to the audience for an answer. He retreats and closes the door, only to open it again. Simultaneously, his pained face reveals curiosity, shock, and courage. The expressiveness in butoh is paramount, and Ushio Amagatsu is a master at revealing his soul. His dance becomes a vehicle to transform the inner life into outer, more visible manifestations—a sharing of human sorrow, pleasure, feeling. This is never an easy task, but watching the company dancers onstage reveals the ways in which the expressiveness of the body can surpass words. In the final scene, the lights turn blue while dancers transform from a band of creatures into a blossoming lotus flower. After that, they become more animated, pointing to something beyond the horizon. Up, down, all around—the focus shifts from one place to another. For the closing scene, the dancers lay on their backs in the middle of the stage, like overgrown babies, the bodies float and melt into space as arms and legs drift ever so gently off the ground. The pace is haunting and surreal and delicate all at once—a moving closure to an epic dance creation.

Leaving the theatre, I can’t help but reflect on how Sankai Juku has taken a dance form that developed (post WWII)—a reaction and alternative to traditional Noh theatre and the current of Western artistic traditions—and transformed its culturally specific and socially-charged roots into a highly universal tapestry. People expecting to find grotesque bodies or contorted facial features will probably not be content with a show like Tobari: As if in an Inexhaustible Flux, simply because the dance has been crafted and polished for the proscenium stage. Despite the aesthetic of Sankai Juku being a far cry from that of butoh-founder Hijikata’s earliest works like Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), there is no doubt that the company, as a global trailblazer, continues to satisfy audiences who seek contemporary dance grounded in resonant images and themes.
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