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.