Sankai Juku: Live review
I don’t know if Tokyo’s Sankai Juku has marketed itself directly to fans of sci-fi, but I’m willing to bet it would go over well. Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away, founder/director Ushio Amagatsu’s lauded 1998 production that played the Harris Theater October 20, is like scenes of life on another planet. Like all alien races our own has invented, the work’s six characters are created in our image and, as in sci-fi, they speak more to how we see ourselves than to what other civilizations might be like.
This alien-ness is actually Amagatsu’s faithful employment of a movement-based Japanese performance art technique, Butoh, applied to the context of a dance concert. (The choreographer, 61, studied ballet and modern-dance before discovering Butoh in the ’70s.) It’s commonly said that Butoh’s founding forces, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, gave birth to the style in response to the devastation of the atomic bomb; that indeed tells you most of what you need to know, and is echoed by Hibiki’s meticulously considered staging. The dancers, all men and including Amagatsu, are usually shirtless and covered in a thin layer of white makeup. The stage is covered in a fine, tan sand brushed perfectly flat. The lighting, designed by Tsutomu Yamaga with Saturu Suzuki, mostly glows on a spectrum between golden and jaundiced. When the backdrop is lit, the space looks blasted-out and deserted, and when a trio of black curtains close the stage’s back wall like an aperture, it suggests the sealing of a cremation oven.
There’s a closeness to narrative. The six sections are named, probably more poetically in Japanese. (II: Displacement—Most furtive of shadows and VI: Resounding—More light! don’t exactly stir the soul.) Amagatsu plays a character apart; in what I think was the third section—I ended up with two extra in my notes—he dances alone, rooted to a single spot in a thick yellow robe behind one of 13 enormous lenses half-full of liquid. Minute shifts in his stance and placement feel seismic. The difference between two kinds of index finger–points (one with a tight fist, the other with middle, ring and pinkie fingers loosely curled as if in beckoning) is huge. This is the magic of Butoh: Performances of it are so profoundly embodied, and you find yourself watching them so closely, that every detail becomes a clue, a step closer to understanding scenes that barely seem human. (Shortly before Amagatsu’s solo begins, two figures in yellow enter and walk to the front of the stage. Side by side they wave to us, and move their near arms in mirror image, intertwining and locking limbs. In the light, and with the makeup, you cannot see their eyes. It chews on the part of your mind that decodes things. It gnaws at your ridiculous concepts of “truth” and “understanding,” then tosses them away like bones picked clean to bleach and disintegrate under a never-setting sun.)
If a part of my attention to Hibiki was reserved and set aside, it was the part that wondered how something so visually timeless could be saddled with a distracting, uneven soundtrack. Credited to Takashi Kako and Yoichiro Yoshikawa, it’s simply too 1998; in fact, it sounds ten years older than that. Synth washes and Philip Glass–lite piano riffs are disappointingly New Agey, conjuring thoughts of essential oils and crystal shops when the images they accompany are intensely real and deeply troubling. Kako and Yoshikawa are at their best when they avoid the melodic impulse entirely. The sharp shhhink of a blade coming out of its scabbard, or the unnerving groan of a faraway beast echoing in a vast and palpable silence, were more than enough on their own, stacking tension upon dread until the whole mess threatened to topple. Butoh is often pegged as glacially slow—I’ve called it that myself—but there are flashes of quickness, especially in the ensemble sections. It’s the shortness of the travel of movement that makes it seem more like living sculpture. The dancers run fast, feet shuffling invisibly underneath their long pants and skirts, but for just a few feet, then stop like flames snuffed out. Power is available, and at the ready, but withheld, adding to our sense that we don’t know who these figures are or of how much they’re capable. Their precision is what’s most shocking. The men almost never touch each other, but run around the stage and among the lenses in amazingly complex, non-repeating patterns that come within an inch of intersecting. Any of them could be a Butoh Slalom Gold Medalist.
Hibiki threatens to end on an incongruously upbeat note, the group rotating clockwise while the aperture reopens and the stage floods with light. The score is at its most obtrusive, swelling to heights intended to be cathartic. Five tense, claw-like hands, meeting in the center, suggest the ritual will trigger some simplistic ascension, and we’ll all explode into pure love. As throughout, though, the piece remains unpredictable. Hibiki’s finest moments are its last. The house—not sold out but pretty well full—stood to recognize the talent and vision of this unique company. According to its website, there are 11 of these works. I would very much like to see them all.
Sankai Juku’s Chicago debut was the result of a first-ever collaboration between the Dance Center of Columbia College, Museum of Contemporary Art and Harris Theater for Music and Dance; it performs Hibiki and other works in Canada and the United States through November 14. For more Butoh—on the cheap—see Hiroko and Koichi Tamano perform with their workshop participants at Links Hall Monday 25 at 8pm.