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

Review: Sankai Juku

First there was the sound of a drop.

A drop fell from one of  the props (beautifully ornamented top-shaped  glass receptacles with mini-pipettes that was suspended from the ceiling) into one of the  huge shallow transparent bowls  that were arranged in a  wide U-shape around the stage. The bowls were filled with water and looked out-of-the-world in the almost-dark stage that was covered with fine white sand (I learnt later that more than 2 tons of sand was brought in  from the shores of Lake Michigan).

Then there was complete silence.

Dancers covered in white rice powder entered silently like ghosts and lay in fetal positions near the bowls. To the sound of drops, they slowly unfurled themselves to life. And the journey began.

This was how Sankai Juku’s “Hibiki: Resonance from far away” started.  To say, the first dance “Drop” was beautiful would be a huge understatement. It was mesmerising. The dancers slowly came to life- shown by exquisite but very controlled repetitive movements of the dancers rising up and then back down.

To summarise, Hibiki is about the stages of life expressed in a very beautiful, calm and slow manner. It starts with the showing the change of  embryos. Then as they come into the world, there is tension and there is resonance due to this tension and also, due to lack of it. There are changes in the body due to its reaction to the world outside it. Then there is calm inner reflection. And finally there’s light and peace and we go back to where it began. The cycle  repeats, as Ushio Amagatsu says, “this million year drama”.

Sankai Juku’s performance was mindblowing. The dance philosophy that Ushio Amagatsu follows is based on butoh. Slow controlled deliberate movements with focus on the execution rather than on grace and then repetition- these were some of the differences in his style. The dancers were all mature and older and the average age would have been at least 6 years higher than a that of any other dance group. I think  hte experience of the dancers helped to add  more gravity to the dance.

The music was brilliant. There were couple of themes (like “displacement” and “reflection”) which I found was too heavy and tedious for me. And the music at places sounded disturbing (weird too). But it matched the moods and the choreography so well.

The lighting arrangement for Hibiki was exceptional. For instance, the way they showed darkness enfolding was awesome! Two sets of screens  were pulled in two directions( vertical and horizontal) towards each other over a lighted background (when I mean lighted, imagine the brilliant suffused yellow glow of the sun at dawn) thereby creating a shrinking window of light. And then in the end, there was light again!

Outer limits of the red
“Outer limits of the red”, courtesy, “Pomegranate arts”

For “the outer limits of the red” sequence, red dye was poured into one of the bowls and the light shone over it creating a red glow which was in contrast with the pure white gowns of the dancers (they were all male but they wore some form of a corseted gown) and the effect was just breath-taking.

During the dance, the sand was kicked up a bit and the lighting effects made it seem as if rays of light were streaming through misty climes thus casting a very mystical and ethereal aura on the stage.

According  to me, the way these lighting effects, props and movements melded together was what makes Sakai Juku such an unique group. Here’s something to think about.

“An embryo, one month after conception, will
From ichthyic to amphibian,
Reptile to mammal.
This million year drama,
Emerging upon the shores of the
Paleozoic era,
Is enacted by an embryo
Within a matter of days.”- Ushio Amagatsu

Isn’t that beautiful?

Do you know what I was remided of when after I saw “Sankai Juku”? Earthbenders in the series “Avatar:the Last Airbender”.  (If you haven’t seen “Avatar:the last airbender” anime series,oh my god, what are you doing?  But, oh well,  I will save it for another time! :-))

Still Enamored, yours truly

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