Theater

The Mask

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A ghostly figure stands in the dark, beneath a massive canopy of pale lotus leaves. His shaved skull and skin are coated in gleaming white paint. Beneath his robe, his legs are immovable as a tree trunk. Only his chalky arms move, twining slowly, slowly skyward.

And the audience is rapt. Ushio Amagatsu, the 57-year-old designer, choreographer, and soloist of the Sankai Juku troupe, turns butoh into spellbinding ritual. Kagemi (2000), having its New York premiere at BAM, is not your typical butoh experience. Its slowness is focused in images crisp as an Avedon photo: a streak of red wiped across a white cheek, a gaping mouth, earnest eyes in a mask-like face. Sudden bursts of speed jolt the stillness, leaving trails of floating dust. Silence is mostly filled by a score with surprisingly winsome passages.

Ankoku Butoh, the “dance of darkness” of a postwar generation, has sprouted many latter-day branches. Amagatsu’s retains the physical extremity (there are stunning feats of control here), and some of the shuddering expressionist horror. But his real concern is the rebirth after apocalypse—the atavistic drive back to nature. In his luminous cosmos, dancers glide across space as if skating. Between his own solos, Amagatsu often puts two trios in mesmeric counterpoint. At times, two men mirror each other’s motions. “The right hand asks,” says a program note. “The left hand answers.” In the final moments, as the lotus leaves descend to cover the dancers’ reclining bodies, the ghosts raise their wrists above the stalks.

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