Ashes to Ashes

Wall Street Journal

November 8, 2010

Watching Sankai Juku on stage is akin to seeing a dream unfold. One of Japan’s leading Butoh dance companies, it combines otherworldly beauty with eerie mysteriousness.

“Tobari,” a piece that Sankai Juku is performing across North America this month, begins with a spotlight illuminating a lone, nearly motionless dancer caught in a circle of brightness. His head is shaved and he is covered with ghostly white make-up; he resembles an alabaster sculpture or an exquisite corpse come to life on a stage shrouded in darkness.

More ashen figures emerge during the seven scenes of the 90-minute work, intensely danced without intermission. The stage eventually transforms from a place of dark isolation to a wondrous galaxy of stars. “Tobari” expresses the theme of birth and rebirth both from and into “unlimited nothingness”—the title of the first and last scenes of the performance.


Although there are recurring motifs in “Tobari,” there is “no story in terms of plot. I want audience members to experience it the way you approach poetry,” said Ushio Amagatsu, founder and artistic director of Sankai Juku, speaking through a translator in a phone interview.


Sankai Juku

“You can interpret [“Tobari”] in many different ways or not at all. You can just enjoy how beautifully, peacefully they move and how visually stunning it is,” said Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater in New York, where Sankai Juku kicked off its North American tour last month.

Sankai Juku

Memorial Auditorium
Stanford, Calif.
Nov. 9

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco
Nov. 11-14

Mr. Amagatsu, who identifies himself as part of Japan’s second generation of Butoh dancers, founded the troupe in 1975 and worked in France during Sankai Juku’s early years. The troupe has since performed in 41 countries and is one of about a dozen internationally recognized Butoh companies.

Butoh is a Japanese dance form that emerged in Japan in the 1960s in response to the turmoil of World War II and its aftermath. The form is known for dancers covered in white powder who grotesquely contort their bodies and move with glacial slowness. Mr. Amagatsu, who turned 60 this year, performs a solo in “Tobari” where he flings his chiseled body toward the audience while mouthing a silent, anguished scream.

But in “Tobari,” Sankai Juku tempers the grim qualities typical of traditional Butoh with the theme of rebirth, as well as with striking visuals and the dancers’ majestic postures.

While the dancers in one scene in “Tobari” crouch like fetuses, in another they stand with commanding grace in midnight-blue dresses splashed with dirty streaks of red and white. Earrings of white quail eggs, representing birth, hang from the lobes of dancers who become androgynous, alien beings.

Western modern dance often attempts to defy gravity. Mr. Amagatsu says his work, by contrast, is a dialogue with gravity and its influence on the human body. In one scene, four dancers lay supine on the floor, lifting their limbs just inches off the ground so they seem to float, until their bodies crumple in what looks like spasms of agony.

The first generation of Butoh dancers and their search for Japanese identity undeniably influenced Mr. Amagatsu. But when he left Japan in the early ’80s to work in France, he began shaping his vision as a second-generation Butoh dancer. As a Japanese person living overseas, he had a “keen awareness of cultural differences but, on the other hand, reconfirmed human universality beyond culture.”

The work of Sankai Juku—which means “studio of mountain and sea” in Japanese—has other distinctive characteristics. In “Tobari,” there are surprising bursts of brisk walking, frantic waving of the arms, and hand gestures that mimic bobbing birds. There are unusual splashes of color—bronze-colored short sarongs wrapped around chalky bodies, the aforementioned blue dresses, and slivers of crimson flowers tucked behind a dancers’ ears.

“Tobari” means curtain or screen in Japanese; the piece is subtitled “As if in an inexhaustible flux.” To create the starry sky on stage, a black screen was pierced by some 6,600 holes to let pinpricks of light shine through. The screen features Polaris, a constellation in the real-life night sky of a Japanese August. A large black oval on the floor of the stage also becomes a minigalaxy when 2,200 tiny LED lights embedded in its surface light up.

“When we think about day or night, there isn’t a clear-cut distinction between the two. When did the night start? It is not totally clear,” Mr. Amagatsu observed. And time has a dual nature. “When human beings see stars, they see light emanated from millions of years ago. They are seeing something both in the far past and present,” Mr. Amagatsu explained. “That’s the reality of human beings. We as individual human beings—our life span is limited. However, we are part of a long history of life. It’s so long that it’s continuous.”

Throughout “Tobari,” dancers move with slow precision over a stage covered with sand, which represents the “dust” to which life returns. At times the music of shivering lutes, pendulous drums and an airy flute fade to silence; the whisper of bare feet over sand becomes the only soundtrack.

For Sankai Juku’s two-week run in New York, the Joyce Theater helped bring in 1,750 pounds of fine, white sand from New Jersey. “They liked the sand so much that they are bringing some of it with them,” noted Ms. Shelton. Sand and white powder remain lodged in crevices in the Joyce Theater’s stage. “We’ll have their powder with us for a long time,” Ms. Shelton quipped. Sankai Juku lingers long after it has gone.

Ms. Yee writes about Asia for the Journal and other publications.

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