REVIEW: Sankai Juku, Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land

After experiencing the Japanese dance form of butoh through Sankai Juku’s meditative performance, I felt both emotionally disturbed yet liberated. The continuous 90-minute ‘dance’ performance, composed of seven distinct acts, is supposedly choreographed to emanate the circularity within processes and systems such as the earth’s transformation and its movement through the four seasons. The eight performers are powdered a stark white from head to toe, donning bald heads, asymmetrical earrings, and mostly white, sarong-like costumes on their lower halves. They move in correspondence to emotionally dynamic music and express a “dialogue with gravity” through both graceful and grotesque movements marked by spinning, jumping, and eerie bodily gesturing. It is personally difficult for me to describe Sankai Juku through a traditional ‘dance’ perspective; I fail to see it confined to any form of dance theatre that I have experienced before. Sankai Juku as a whole feels more akin to a poetically disturbing expression of the human experience, while their interpretation of meguri translates as a storytelling experience that is facilitated by the mostly monochrome stage lighting that changed with each act.

I thought Ushio Amagatsu’s portrayal of the grotesque within the context of meguri communicated to the audience particularly well; Act V, titled Forest of Fossils, left me especially disturbed with my thoughts asunder. It was during this section that I finally reached some sort of understanding of the performers’ wide, gaping, mouths and permanently perturbed eyes – to me, they communicated agony in discovery and marked the climax of the program. During Act V, only three performers are present on a stage set aglow with greenish light; the music is both tensely trembling and pulsating with the sounds of rocks grinding, which calls to mind the natural shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates. Paralleling the earth’s provocations are the performers, who appear the most agitated that they have been, with one performer gesturing the most frantically and in the most ‘agony’ – at one point, that performer drags his limbs across the powdery ground in a tight spiral to form two symmetrical circles, then subsequently emotes in pure tension and agony around the formation of those two circles. The remaining two performers respond in an unsettling symmetry, and their generally upwards arm movements seem to be grasping at some unattainable substance or idea. The desperation and agony contained within this grotesque imagery, combined with the increasingly jarring music, left me feeling deeply unsettled and in rumination of Amagutsu’s artistic intent behind that section.

As much as I enjoyed the dichotomy between the grotesqueness of Amagutsu’s work and the beauty in the circularity and meguri it conveyed, I think the most uniquely beautiful aspect of Sankai Juku is how the performance manages to maintain universality in evoking the most visceral of emotions from its audience. My disturbed reaction to and interpretation of agony from Act V, Forest of Fossils, differs from the next audience member, yet the emotional impact of this does not seem to suffer in the face of Sankai Juku’s widely interpretable themes derived from the human experience.



REVIEW: Sankai Juku’s “UMUSUNA”

From the very first moment to the last, the Butoh dance company Sankai Juku captivated all audiences with their movements. All eight company members exerted utter control over their bodies, in the artistic sense that we do not see in the Western dance forms.

Founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, Sankai Juku is one of the leading Butoh dance company from Japan. Butoh is an indescribable and difficult-to-define genre with playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments. As with many other Butoh dancers, performers of Sankai Juku paint their bodies white, shave their heads, and wear simple costumes — either all-white or white with one additional color. As a result, they look much like classical marble statues dancing on stage. In fact, the idea of using cloth-wrapping as their costume was inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans, when these clothes were considered gender-neutral and generic. (It was nice to be able to read this article in Japanese to find this out.)

Ushio Amagatsu in his solo act of “UMUSUNA”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although the marble statues may be a Western/European idea, Sankai Juku diverges from the Western aesthetics in dance in many ways. The biggest one is the ideas surrounding “tension” — Amagatsu describes Butoh as “a conversation with gravity”, in which the dancers seek to achieve “relaxation” by going along with gravity in their movements as much as possible. In ballet, dancers intentionally add tension by dancing en pointe and lifting up their bodies; in Butoh, they intentionally bring down their center of gravity. As such, each movement is very slow and steady — in the opening 20-feet-walk that could take 3 seconds in our daily life, Amagatsu takes 3 minutes. Choreography incorporates lying down, crawling, bending, gasping for air, and many other movements that are vital in our life — “UMUSUNA” is the concept of entering into a world, on a blank slate.

UMUSUNA is a very old word originating from ancient Japan that has the same root as ubusuna (one’s place of birth). Ubusu means birth, the beginning of life, or entering the world. The word umusu also embodies the concepts of everything and hothing, existence and nothingness. Na evokes the land, the ground/sosil. and one’s native place. (Taken from program notes)


In the simplistic stage setup for “UMUSUNA,” sand constantly falling from the ceiling reminds us of time that flows very slowly and steadily. One scene flows to the next seamlessly. To me, the most incredible scene change was the one from “III. Memories from water” and “IV. In winds blown to the far distance.” After four dancers spent the entire act crawling, sliding, and lying down on the sand-covered platform, the lighting changes to cast shadow on the traces that these dancers have made. Then, the dancers gradually switch out — and the new dancers stare at the traces made by their predecessors — as if they are looking back to their infancy and childhood, their “birthplace (ubusuna)”.

Watching Sankai Juku’s performance challenged me to think about contemporary dance from different perspectives. It makes me feel very happy that these people have come from Japan to perform — the same ubusuna as me. Thanks (again) UMS and Pomegranate Arts for bringing this wonderful performance to Ann Arbor!

PREVIEW: Sankai Juku’s “UMUSUNA”

On Friday, October 25, Ann Arbor welcomes back Sankai Juku with their performance of “UMUSUNA: Memories Before History”. Sankai Juku is a dance group from Japan who specializes in the dance form of Butoh, an indescribable and difficult-to-define genre with playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments. As with many butoh dance groups, Sankai Juku performs in all-white makeups and minimal costumes, on a simply decorated set. The focus is on the dancers’ movements — they are not necessarily “beautiful” or soothing, but they convey strong messages on philosophical matters and evoke strong emotions.

Intern from UMS, Rachel Stopchinski writes in her UMS Lobby post:

Butoh performance, like Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, which plays at the Power Center this October, often aren’t narrative. The symbolism of their intense movement vocabulary is left for the audience to decipher. I expect this performance will call to my mind my experiences both in the forests of Mt. Fuji and elsewhere, experiences that attempted to illuminate the complex relationship between Japanese culture and the environment. We interacted, even climbed inside, the earth. We wondered what it would have been like before human interaction—a history we can only imagine.

(Quoted from:

Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Over the past summer, I had the privilege to work with Pomegranate Arts, a small independent arts management company in New York that manages many artists including Sankai Juku in North America. As an intern, I helped out with some parts of filling out the visa application for everyone in the group, and I had to compile a packet of reviews from around the world about Sankai Juku. One of the interview pieces I’ve come across was of Ushio Amagatsu, the choreographer for “UMUSUNA” and the founder/director of Sankai Juku, who mentioned the importance of birthplace in this piece:

Firstly, the word umusuna in the title – a similar word would be ubusuna – is an old word meaning “the place you were born.” The word primarily refers to a small area, but if you take a broader, universal, planet-wide perspective, I think it’s possible to imagine lots of places where humans were born on Earth. So, I created this piece to express the places where humans have a connection with nature, comprised of the elements of earth, water, fire, and air, and to also bring time into the mix.


Sankai Juku’s dance performance is nothing like you’ve seen in the past. (Unless you’ve seen them at their earlier UMS appearance, of course!) It is not meant to meet the beauty standards of ballet or American contemporary dance, and challenges your view on how dance can look like. The troop’s unique aesthetic and artistry is definitely something to check out.

When: October 23 and 24 at 8pm

Where: Power Center

Tickets: $12/20 for students. Available for purchase at the Michigan League Ticket Office, or

Preview: Sankai Juku

Dance means different things to different people. To some, it is ballet or  classical dance forms full of graceful movements.  To some, it is an expression of their reaction to music- hip-hop, jazz dance, tap dance,etc.  To others like me who are not so graceful or particularly born to dance, it is a fun way to  exercise. And to some, like Sankai Juku’s founder Ushio Amagatsu, it is butoh.

Ushio Amagatsu
Ushio Amagatsu

According to Amagatsu, the dance form of butoh represents “a dialogue with gravity”.  Be it ballet, hip-hop, Irish dance or any other dance, gravity defying movements are a huge focus of modern-day dance. But butoh is about “sympathisizing with gravity” (to quote Amagatsu) and thus it comprises of entirely different set of movements.

What I feel Sankai Jukus butoh symbolises- the call of gravity
What I feel Sankai Juku's butoh symbolises- embracing the call of gravity

Sankai Juku will be performing the work “Hibiki: resonance from Far Away”, at the Power Center this weekend. Be prepared for stunning imagery and some inventive and impressive choreography.

Show times:

Saturday, October 23 | 8 pm
Sunday, October 24 | 2 pm

Power Center

Tickets @ the Michigan League Ticket Office; more info on the UMS webpage