Butoh troupe Sankai Juku creates dances of dark mystery

Ushio Amagatsu’s world-renowned butoh troupe, Sankai Juku, taps the primal and the universal

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      Known as the “dance of darkness”, butoh grew out of the scorched earth of postwar Japan. The white-powdered faces, gnarled movements, and mouths frozen in silent screams expressed the devastation and dramatic change that society there was undergoing.

      One of the people responsible for bringing that radical art form to the West is 60-year-old Japanese choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, who calls himself a second-generation butoh artist. He founded his now internationally renowned troupe, Sankai Juku, in 1975, but five years later he took it to Paris—and he’s never looked back. He continues to premiere a new work every two years in the French capital and has travelled to stages around the world. At first it may seem odd that Amagatsu could devote himself to an art form that’s so deeply rooted in Japan’s modern history so far away from his home country, but today it seems natural to the philosophical artist.

      “When I went out from Japan to France in 1980, everything was different: the food, lifestyles, customs, and the language,” says Amagatsu, whose troupe now splits each year between Paris, Tokyo, and “living out of a suitcase” on the road. He’s speaking to the Straight through a translator by phone from a tour stop in New York. “But I also became keenly aware of the universality of people regardless of background. This became the basis of my creation, actually.”

      Sankai Juku’s popularity in Europe and elsewhere speaks to that universality. The company’s name means “studio by the mountain and the sea”, and Amagatsu’s works are marked by serene and mesmerizingly slow movement. Over the years, he’s become known for his theatrical flourishes—Kinkan Shonen employed a live peacock, while other works have featured dancers hanging upside down for extended periods of time. His pieces are also praised for their sculptural design.

      But for Amagatsu, who studied modern and classical dance before turning to butoh, the key to his works is the way the dancers move—which stands in stark contrast to the way they do in western productions.

      “I always say my dance is a dialogue with gravity, and I need the body to maintain and have a relationship with surrounding space and time,” he says. “When I create my work, I start from the body in the relaxed state, and this is distinct from western dance, which in general starts with tension. But I start with the stillness of the body before tension, and then explore tension.”

      He adds that he never uses mirrors in the studio, because his work isn’t about correcting the posture from the outside; instead, it’s about movement emerging through the body from deep inside.

      These are abstract-sounding concepts that local audiences will get to see in the white-caked flesh on Friday and Saturday nights (November 5 and 6) at the Vancouver Playhouse, when DanceHouse brings the all-male troupe’s Tobari: as if in an inexhaustible flux to town. The work, which premiered to glowing reviews at Paris’s Théí¢tre de la Ville in May 2008, takes place under a black backdrop pierced by thousands of twinkling stars. It’s a hypnotic, nonstop tableau of birth, death, and rebirth, with flickering changes of light playing over the bodies of its seven bald, white-robed performers as they writhe on a black disc at the centre of the sand-covered stage.

      The butoh master explains that, with Tobari, he sought to express time, in all its infinite mystery and beauty.

      “I have stars in this work, and when you think of them, the light resonated from them billions of years ago, whereas the one witnessing it now is feeling it now, or witnessing it in the present tense,” he begins. “So this difference of time and perspective was something I wanted to pursue.

      Tobari means in Japanese the border between day and night,” he continues. “When the night falls, it’s kind of vague when that happens. There’s that particular moment when the person notices suddenly that they are already enveloped in darkness. So it’s kind of about that passive way that we live.”

      Amagatsu traffics in the mysteries of life, and his work is fittingly enigmatic. The feeling that comes from witnessing his pale, bald phantasms unfurling on-stage is something that has to be experienced to be fully understood.

      Just ask DanceHouse’s producer Jim Smith, who has seen Tobari and calls bringing Sankai Juku here for the first time “a coup”. He emphasizes that although the troupe is clearly rooted in the traditions of butoh, it’s taken the form boldly forward and made it its own. The show is also a chance to see bodies move in ways we’re not used to seeing—not even with other butoh troupes.

      “They’re trying to tap into a primal aspect of the body, and it’s often about bending the joints in different ways,” he explains.

      Sankai Juku’s performances both defy description and get at ideas that go beyond words—and that may ultimately be the company’s biggest draw.

      “The reason I find it difficult to talk about the work is it is so much about trying to catch an essence of something,” Smith says. “A performance by Sankai Juku is unlike anything you’ve experienced anywhere else, or likely will again.”