Sankai Juku returns to Seattle, this time at the Paramount

By R.M. Campbell

One of the strangest phenomena to emerge in post-World War II Japan was a dance movement called Butoh. It was a reaction against just about everything, Japan and otherwise, and once it crossed into the West made a powerful impression. Movement was often inexplicable, bizarre, disturbing, grotesque. And very dark.

With more extreme proponents, performances could be difficult to watch which, I suppose, was the point. One group was quite different. Certainly it was a Butoh ensemble in philosophy and style with its shaven heads, bodies painted in white rice flour and very slow movement. But Sankai Juku was more about poetry than shock value.

The ensemble, founded by Ushio Amagatsu, in 1975, became the best-known of those Butoh ensembles in the West, beginning with its first world tour in 1980. It got to Seattle later in the decade, presented by On the Boards and has reappeared in many venues since then. It was in Seattle that a dancer was accidently killed in a piece, for which the company had become quite famous. The company returned to Japan and dropped the work from its repertory. When it reemerged on the world’s stage, Seattle was the first stop. Since then, inevitably, dancers have come and gone. Amagatsu moved to Paris to live and create his pieces, often in association with the Theatre de la Ville. He has choreographed for non-Japanese dancers and directed opera and plays not only in France but elsewhere.

“Tobari” is his newest work, premiered at the Theatre de la Ville two years ago. Using a company of eight men, including himself, the piece, subtitled “As if in an inexhaustible Flux,” has many of the characteristics of traditional Butoh. The setting — a slightly raised black oval on a bare stage with a starry night as a backdrop — is as spare as the movement. It is divided into eight scenes and is performed without an intermission. The movement is very slow and deliberate, requiring utmost physical control. The title, Amagatsu, explains in the program, is a Japanese word meaning “a veil of fabric hung in a space as a partition. Since olden times, ‘tobari’ has been used poetically to express the passage from day to night in expressions like wrapped in a veil of night.”

Like so much of Amagatsu’s work, “Tobari” is a ritual, the meaning of which is not easy to discern. It is metaphysical, a long poem about life, about being and nothingness. As much as it evokes the course of human life, “Tobari” is about nature and its own circle of life. The men, sometimes appearing in pairs and trios and sometimes all together, move in careful, discreet ways, with more a suggestion of the grotesque than in full measure. Fingers can individually fold and unfold as readily as arms and legs. Amagatsu has choreographed a long solo for himself, which is probably the center of the work.

Not only did Amagatsu choreograph the piece, he directed and designed it. The extraordinary lighting was designed by Genta Iwamura. Three individuals are given credit for the music: Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. It will not be to everyone’s taste because it can resemble mood music, smoothly fluent and harmonious. However, the soundscape works in this milieu and serves as a seamless backdrop to the movement itself.

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