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.)
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!