A review of legendary butoh company Sankai Juku, performing through Oct. 3 at the University of Washington.
Sankai Juku, the legendary butoh company from Japan, is known for arresting images: dancers suspended from massive sculptures or live doves atop tall poles. “Umusuna — Memories Before History” begins with a characteristically stunning tableau.
As a stream of sand pours down from the fly space above, a lone figure appears far upstage. Bald, bare-chested and wearing a long white skirt, he walks toward the audience at an excruciatingly slow pace. As he slices the air with extended arms and contorts his torso this way and that, he conveys an anguish almost too painful to observe.
The figure is Ushio Amagatsu. Now 66 years old, Amagatsu is as compelling an artist today as when he founded Sankai Juku in 1975 — and as inventive. With each production he plumbs the human psyche ever more deeply, creating a meditative universe in which performers and audience are equal participants.
Sankai Juku: ‘Umusuna — Memories Before History’
Repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 3), Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; tickets from $50 (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
“Umusuna” means “place of one’s birth” in Japanese, and the falling-sand motif, which persists throughout the piece, suggests the passage of time while other images, such as dancers rolling sideways like a primitive species, evoke the creation of Earth and its evolving life-forms.
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Even before the formal performance begins, Amagatsu draws us into a contemplative state. The dimly lit stage is set with two hourglasses suspended above balance pans, creating a huge scale — as audience members settle into their seats, the hourglasses begin almost imperceptibly to empty their contents. Throughout the performance, the hourglasses shift up and down, moving into and out of equilibrium like the ebb and flow of human experience.
As in other Sankai Juku productions, the movement in “Umusuna” is highly ritualized. Occasionally, the dancers seem to float across the stage, but they mostly stand almost statuelike, defining the space around them with small muscle isolations. Amagatsu’s butoh style requires enormous physical control, and his seven dancers, most of whom have been with the company for more than 10 years, demonstrate complete mastery of the challenging positions.
One of Amagatsu’s greatest talents is designing dazzling visual effects that lull us into a trancelike state. In “Umusuna,” as we watch glowing swatches of color transform the stage from volcanic lava flows to watery underworld, the physical sensations seem to penetrate our unconscious minds. A Sankai Juku experience can continue to sink in for days — and, sometimes, years — after the immediate viewing.
At its core, each Sankai Juku production draws the audience together with the performers into a powerful human experience. Through its extraordinary beauty and emotional power, “Umusuna” inspires us to come together to appreciate the mystery of the world’s creation and our unique place in it.