When I think about Sankai Juku, the Japanese dance troupe that has visited Ann Arbor regularly for over two decades, I think first about the bodies. The dancers–originally five, now eight–are all men. But powdered marmoreally white from their shaven heads to the tips of their toes, they are, somehow, unsexed–androgynous, sculptural avatars of humankind acting out mysterious rituals of creation, cycles of being and non-being. Slight and unmuscled but incredibly strong, they move, knees bent, in almost impossible slow motion; corseted and skirted, or bare-chested, they rise to fall back in perfect retrograde; they arch their torsos, arms outstretched and hands gnarled into loose cups of anguish, their mouths forming Os of amazement or, possibly, horror. They break the spell with anxious, crouching scurries across the stage and punctuate it with collapses that startle like thunderclaps, accompanied by ominous music to match.
All this is the creation of dancer, director, designer, and choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku (“school of mountain and sea”) in 1975. Amagatsu is a second-generation master of butoh, a form created in Japan in the wake of World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki to express the period’s darkness and despair. Rejecting traditional Japanese dance-theater forms, butoh also eschewed ideas from Western dance, especially the search for liberation from gravity. In fact, Amagatsu calls his butoh dances–dreamlike, nonlinear hour-plus creations that suspend and compress time–“a dialog with gravity.” In the studio, he choreographs without music and without mirrors to reflect the dancers’ images back to them. Atmospheric scores from collaborators come later. His goal: concentration made manifest in movement.
When the University Musical Society brings Sankai Juku to Power Center October 23 and 24, it will present Amagatsu’s 2012 work “Umusuna: Memories Before History.” “Umusuna,” Amagatsu explained in an email, is an ancient Japanese word that means “place of one’s birth.” “When I apply this word to the whole human being, the Earth itself becomes Umusuna,” he writes. The birth of the Earth, our entry into it, and our relation to the four basic elements are his “subjects” here.
Expect to absorb all that indirectly. The information just gradually accumulates, a little like the sand that is so much a part of his dances. In “Umusuna,” sand sifts from above, like waterfalls that glint in the light. Sand coats the stage, drifting into swirls and crescents that the dancers’ bare feet and bodies rearrange to signal both human presence and absence. Dancers are at the center for Amagatsu, but what he designs to surround them–spaces in which volume, color, light, and even music seem to breathe–is an essential cocoon.
It’s no accident that “Memories Before History” recalls some subtitles from the group’s previous works (“In a Space of Perpetual Motion,” “Within a Gentle Vibration and Agitation,” “Resonance from Far Away”). Amagatsu brings the echoes of universal transformations and metamorphoses to our ear. The sounds are both beautiful and grotesque, unseizable and within our grasp.