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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 9, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 41
Sankai Juku performs Umusuna: Memories Before History
Arts & Entertainment
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Sankai Juku performs Umusuna: Memories Before History

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

UW WORLD DANCE
SANKAI JUKU
UMUSUNA: MEMORIES BEFORE HISTORY (2012)
GEORGE MEANY HALL
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
October 1


Sankai Juku, the world-famous Japanese troupe that performs the style of dance called butoh, was absolutely mesmerizing - a description often used to describe this unusual, highly original form of movement. It is so slow and meditative that you begin to fall into an altered state as you watch, the performance managing to be both intriguing and soporific at the same time. You sit up fascinated and then fall back with eyelids at half-mast, and then you sit up fascinated again. I say this in a good way - it makes you feel as though you did an hour of yoga and then drifted off while lying in savasana. The corpse pose is apt, since, according to the program, 'the best body for a butoh dancer is a corpse, a body that asks for and expresses nothing.' While this concept strikes me as somewhat contradictory, since all dance intends to communicate and Sankai Juku is nothing if not expressive, I can understand how a butoh dancer needs to maintain the stillness of the dead. Sometimes their movements were imperceptible, and yet the dancers were so fascinating that they were a joy to watch even when they weren't doing anything.

Founder Ushio Amagatsu, who also directs, choreographs, and performs, leads the seven male dancers through 85 minutes of very still, very precise, and very dramatic gestures. The fact that all of the dancers are bald and painted in white rice powder adds to the strangeness. The program, called Umusuna (an ancient word for fundamental things) portrayed creation in a mysterious series of tableaux as the dancers, wrapped in various versions of floor-length skirts, moved slowly on a stage covered in sand.

In Umusuna sand sifts down from on high throughout the performance representing the sands of time. Two shallow fields of sand covered each side of the stage creating a central trough into which dancers stepped, as blue light suggested flowing water. Black scrims at the rear of the stage opened and closed to create simple, dramatic effects with colored light. The format was reminiscent of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan, which made memorable use of sand sifting down from on high onto the head of a monk who, standing still for the entire performance, was buried in sand at the end. The concept of passing time in Umusuna was more coherent in Sankai Juku, as you watched the dancers portray all the elements of creation - fire, wind, rain, and the growth of green things - with the simple device of light and sand.

I was particularly moved by the sequence in which dancers with tinges of red on their faces and in red-tinged skirts appeared to be molding the earth in the slow, searing ways of flowing lava, sometimes lifting their heads in a silent scream, as if the violence of creation was painful for the earth itself. The music alternated between slowly booming soundscapes, Japanese traditional music, and chaotic mechanical sounds that formed just the right tension with the dancers without distracting from the elemental gestures that three or four dancers would perform together in exact simultaneity.

Another aspect of the performance that intrigued me was when Amagatsu would come onstage at key moments and perform a solo, which demonstrated the movements of butoh without the amplification of other dancers. Much of the drama was absent in these moments, and you could see how the sameness of the dancers - so covered in white paint that they all looked essentially identical - together with the sameness of their concerted movements created the most memorable, indelible mental images for the audience. It was as if Amagatsu was breaking down the steps for you so that you could see them more clearly when the dance was performed by three, four, or six dancers at once.

Sankai Juku performed in the UW World Dance series in 1987, 1990 and 1996 and so it has been almost twenty years since Seattle has seen them. They were first brought to Seattle in 1985 by On the Boards, and, as many people know who were in Seattle at that time, they suffered a terrible tragedy. One of their original dancers, Yokiyushu Takada, died as the troupe performed a dance while hanging from ropes secured to the Metropolitan Life building in Pioneer Square. Takada's rope frayed and he fell five stories. Amagetsu considered dissolving the company at that time, but after a year's withdrawal to regroup and mourn, they returned to the stage. (Go to www.historylink.org to read an account of that tragic incident.)

Everyone who had a chance to see Sankai Juku in Umusuna can be very grateful that Sankai Juke has continued in its mission of bringing butoh dance to the world, and that Seattle has had the privilege of seeing this fascinating, dedicated troupe once more.

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photos:
Sankai-Juku-main: Laurent Philippe
All other images: Courtesy of Sankai Juku
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