Every production of this world-renowned butoh troupe contains mesmerizing images of extraordinary beauty in which the physical body is transformed into an element of the spiritual world.
There are few performing companies in the world that tap the unconscious more deeply than Sankai Juku. Every production of this world-renowned butoh troupe contains mesmerizing images of extraordinary beauty in which the physical body is transformed into an element of the spiritual world.
Through highly ritualistic movements and dazzling theatrical effects, Sankai Juku lures the audience into an almost trancelike state that often requires hours, days or even weeks to fully absorb. When that happens Sankai Juku’s genius becomes even more striking.
All Sankai Juku productions explore universal themes, as Seattle audiences are well aware given the company’s frequent appearances here. “Umusuna — Memories Before History,” which begins its North American tour in Seattle after premiering in France in 2012, is no different. The title of the work means “place of one’s birth” in Japanese, and artistic director-choreographer Ushio Amagatsu says he created the piece “to express the places where humans have a connection with nature and the elements of earth, water, fire and air.”
8 p.m. Oct. 1-3, UW World Series, Meany Hall, University of Washington; $50-$55 (uwworldseries.org or 206-543-4880).
Amagatsu expresses those four elements through different colored stage lights that change as one scene flows seamlessly into the next; the colors of each section are reflected in the costumes as well. What’s constant is a stream of sand that falls continuously throughout the performance. According to Amagatsu, the stream is designed to show life as a vertical line, something that never disappears.
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The physical appearance of the performers enhances the sense that we are participating in a universal human experience. As in all Sankai Juku productions, the seven male dancers, including Amagatsu himself, are baldheaded and bare-chested. They wear skirts and dangling earrings, to blur gender differences, but their most striking aspect is the white paint that covers their bodies.
“I see [the paint] as a tool to erase individuality,” Amagatsu explains. “[It] helps remove bodily features, emphasizing the fact that the dancers are merely human beings.”
White paint has always been an integral part of butoh, which developed in Japan in the post-World War II period. Founded as a reaction to the human suffering and imposition of Western culture that resulted from Japan’s defeat, the first generation of butoh artists created visual images that were often violent and grotesque.
Butoh’s second generation, among whom Amagatsu and Sankai Juku are the most celebrated, focus on more universal and timeless themes such as birth, death, regeneration and redemption. Amagatsu rarely deals with these themes explicitly; rather he creates a mood or feeling that inspires viewers to find their own meanings in his stunning tableaux. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of any Sankai Juku performance is comparing responses with those of other viewers who sometimes draw completely different import from Amagatsu’s powerful abstract images.
Part of what gives Sankai Juku its consistency from one production to another is the fact that almost all the dancers have been with the troupe for at least 10 years. Although Amagatsu is the sole choreographer, he has developed a unique way of involving the dancers in his creative process. It’s an organic method that includes rehearsing without music or mirrors and requires the dancers to focus internally more than externally.
“On our first day together, I start with a short lecture on what I want to do in the new piece,” he explains, “and once I have communicated that, we begin working on the actual physical movements. I ask the dancers to try not to cut the flow of consciousness when they dance so we concentrate more on that than the outside forms.”
Amagatsu works with his composers in an equally collaborative way. If the music already exists, he may ask for sections to be rearranged or specific instruments to be changed; if the score is original, he’ll make suggestions for which instruments to use or what qualities of sound he’s looking for. In either case, he’s always in the studio when the recording is being made. “At the studio, I feel the vibrations of the live sound with my body and think about to what degree it can be used in the stage performance.”
Amagatsu once said that the power in Sankai Juku’s performances comes from the beauty of its visions. As those who have seen Sankai Juku can attest, it’s not unusual for those visions to leave a permanent mark on both the conscious and unconscious mind.
Note: This article was corrected on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. An earlier version carried an incorrect ticket price.