When Sankai Juku first appeared in New York in 1984, few dancegoers here were familiar with Japanese butoh, the radical form initially developed by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the 1960s. Men with shaved heads, painted white all over, who moved at a glacial pace—rooted to the ground and emanating a mysterious spirituality—weren’t familiar sights. Folks had to redefine their ideas about beauty.
Over the years since then, many of us have seen grittier, more transgressive butoh than that practiced by Sankai Juku’s leader, Ushio Amagatsu. We’ve been confronted by performers who looked as if they’d been dug out of the earth, been crippled or driven mad by life. They drooled, howled silently, clubbed their feet, bared their bodies. And New York residents Eiko and Koma, venturing from their early butoh training into private odysseys of death and growth, taught us how to watch movement that developed only slightly less slowly than shoots pushing through earth or snails navigating a lettuce leaf.
Sankai Juku’s poetic rituals are slow but not excruciatingly so; every now and then, performers fairly rush across the space. Amagatsu’s productions cloak struggle and the search for truth in immaculate designs, ravishing lighting, and music that occasionally has a saccharine, New Age ring to it. Like most of the company’s pieces, the one that the eight-man company brought to the Joyce this month situates the performers in a liminal place—a threshold where the present becomes the past. Tobari—As if in an inexhaustible flux (2008) takes its title from the filmy, partial curtain that separates the rooms in a Japanese house, but it also implies the never-ending passage from day to night to day. Objectified by their elegantly austere art, the performers may mesmerize us, but they remain remote. If they move us, it’s by their mastery as performers.
For Tobari, the stage is covered with white sand. In the middle, a large, shiny black disk sometimes reflects the myriad stars that sparkle on the backdrop when night dominates. In the first section, “From unlimited nothingness,” three performers in long, pale, layered garments appear one by one in individual pools of light, slowly rising, sinking, twisting—and always staring into the darkness around them. Sometimes they form their hands into soft claws or surprise us by suddenly and vigorously pointing their index fingers at things unseen. Yoichiro Yoshikawa’s atmospheric music takes over from Takahashi Kako’s with a grumble of thunder, and four other men begin passing through. They wear full, patchy orange skirts that look as if they’re made of leather or vegetation of some sort. In twos, staring straight ahead, these performers glide swiftly across the stage, disappear, and come back again. They flip their hands back and forth at the wrist in a design that calls to mind figures in an Egyptian frieze; they introduce a gesture in which they carefully bring the tips of their two thumbs together.
Amagatsu is the seeker-priest in this rite. To echoing electronic music by Yas-Kaz, the four kneel to him and circle him with upraised palms, while he goes through some inner search. The disk becomes a pond for the trio of men, who reverently touch the now sparkling “water.” Later Amagatsu moves alone on stage, with the liquid gestures and powerful, questing focus that the original three men share (I can’t tell you which listed name belongs to which man. Company policy decrees that no one—except Amagatsu—be singled out). But he allows himself to show more emotion, more private anguish than the others.
The most powerful section for me is “Night blue.” The original three men, plus one other, appear in long-sleeved, dark-blue gowns with vivid splashes of red and cream across the front. Spherical earrings hang from their ears. (Butoh is often fluid and noncommittal about gender.) They dance gravely in unison, their bodies erect, their movements precise and separated by pauses, their gaze unnervingly steady.
The men’s extraordinary discipline and intensity grips you, whether you’re watching the delicacy of Amagatsu’s gestures; the limberness of men who crawl on their bellies, their elbows crooked up like grasshoppers’ legs; or the endurance required when performers lie supine, raising their legs and heads off the floor for many long minutes.
Sankai Juku’s work is as formal in its way as Noh drama, but without the terrifying texts. Its measured loveliness insulates us from turmoil and makes spiritual release and the passages between darkness and light seem almost easy.