Social Buttons

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sankai Juku—Cosmic Dance

Courtesy Sankai Juku

By Tanya Calamoneri

Now one of the best known artists in the avant garde dance form of butoh, Ushio Amagatsu founded Sankai Juku—who come to BAM later this month—in 1975 in Tokyo. A cultural councilor at the French Embassy in Japan invited the company to Paris in 1980, and French audiences smartly fell in love with its work. Sankai Juku has booked nearly bi-annual engagements at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris ever since, and splits its time between Paris and Tokyo. The company also tours extensively, contributing significantly to butoh’s global recognition.

Butoh emerged in 1959 in Japan, instigated by Tatsumi Hijikata, whose work was a provocation to modernity in general and specifically to the Western-lead reconstruction of Japan following World War II. In his 1960 essay “Inner/Outer Material,” Hijikata describes his performances as “bodies that have maintained the crisis of primal experience.” His work was grotesque, erotic, inflammatory, and rebellious. Sometimes dancers would flail wildly. Other times, they would stand completely still—though not serenely—held in place like an insect in amber, crushed by images, sensation, and histories. Rather than a specific dance grammar, butoh utilizes images to initiate movement. The dancers transform their sense of time, space, shape, and relationship based on a string of image poetry that propels them to move.

New York’s formal introduction to butoh on the stage came with Kazuo Ohno’s (Hijikata’s main collaborator and the co-progenitor of butoh) performance of Admiring La Argentina and My Mother at La MaMa in 1981, invited by visionary producer Ellen Stewart. Following this, Dairakudakan (directed by Akaji Maro; Amagatsu was a founding member) performed Sea Dappled Horse in 1982 at the American Dance Festival, where many New York-based dancers train and a varied slate of programming is offered. American audiences everywhere became increasingly aware of butoh with Sankai Juku’s performance at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, which featured the now-iconic Jomon Sho (Homage to Prehistory), in which four men dangle upside-down from ropes looped around their ankles.

Courtesy Sankai Juku
Sankai Juku’s work is often glacially slow and sculpturally arresting. The name translates to “the school of mountains and sea,” and one can clearly see these earthy rhythms in the hypnotic dance. The dancers are skilled at making the most contorted and strenuous positions look graceful, effortless. Watch for floor work that would challenge even the most seasoned Pilates instructor. Though Sankai Juku is often compared to Zen aesthetics, Amagatsu maintains that “universality is the foundation of my work.” This is partly why he was drawn to settle in Paris, where perhaps because of the cultural diversity of its citizens, he more clearly sees the universal elements of humanity despite differences.

One can sense the influence of elegant French culture, particularly fashion, in Sankai Juku’s polished performances. The costumes often feature corsets, gorgeous long trailing skirts, and ear adornment on the all-male cast. The dancers always look composed, even when they are spinning violently, mouths agape. The choreography employs symmetry and unison in a manner reminiscent of ballet. And though the energetic quality is entirely different from ballet, the delicately calibrated gestures echo ballet’s precise placement and clean lines.

Umusuna translates to “memory before history” and explores the mystery of the creation of the world. The beautifully designed set includes two plateaus. In an email exchange, Amagatsu said, “They don’t imply dichotomy; rather, they have a symbolic aspect of ‘two as one,’ or a whole made up of two parts. For example, an individual’s life is a finite thing that has a beginning and an end, but life in the context of human beings can be seen as a continuum that flows on like a river and thus seems infinite. Thus, a finite and an infinite can be seen as two parts of a whole.” Much like the ever-expanding universe from which Amagatsu draws inspiration, Umusuna reminds us that, “nothing is fixed, nor strong, nor stable. I want to show that they are in a state of instability.” Perhaps what is so compelling about its work is that Sankai Juku is able to capture beauty in the precariously delicate balance of it all.

Umusuna: Memories Before History comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House October 28—31, and tickets are still available.

Tanya Calamoneri is a Visiting Professor of Dance at Colgate University, and was a former project manager of DanceMotion USASM at BAM. She received her PhD from Temple University.
Reprinted from Sep 2015 BAMbill.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.