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Sankai Juku
Sankai Juku's “UMUSUNA Memories Before History.” Image Laurent Philippe.jpg

Hourglass Figures

Sankai Juko perform in Los Angeles

Performance
Sankai Juku: “Umusuna: Memories Before History”
Place
CAP UCLA, Royce Hall, Los Angeles, California, October 16-17, 2015
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

A kind of transcendent, spiritual healing took place over the weekend when Paris-based Sankai Juku, an eight-member troupe founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975—the master is still dancing at 66—wove a spell over those audience members who allowed themselves to be enveloped by a work about time, memory, the body and ritual. Visceral as well as highly cerebral, the 80-minute intermissionless “Umusuna” (it premiered in 2012 in Lyon, France), is a testament to humankind in all of its iterations.

Purveyors of Butoh, the decidedly anti-Western, post-Hiroshima, apocalyptic form of Japanese dance characterized by certain grotesqueries and an angst-ridden, unadulterated micro-movement existence, Sankai Juku has brought this art form to, if not the masses, then at least to taste-makers and seekers-of-high-art around the world through thousands upon thousands of performances.

With their signature hairless, naked bodies covered in white chalk dust and their collectively enigmatic presence (bald heads included), the dancers, many of whom have been company members for several decades, had not performed in L.A. since 2006. (Gratitude and kudos, then, to CAP UCLA’s artistic director, Kristy Edmunds, whose inspired programming continues to enrich the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.)

This stunning, seven-part work, loosely based on the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, is set to music (heard on tape) by frequent collaborators, Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. “Umusuna,” which translates as “place of birth,” unfolds in and around a slim river of sand that continuously flows from fly space to floor.

Bookended by two hourglasses suspended above large discs—jumbo scales—that inch up and down during the performance, the sand was a stark reminder of the implacable continuum/mystery that is time. Amagatsu, in addition to making the choreography and designing the set and costumes, is still an arresting figure who performed several solos throughout the work, setting the tone of this dreamscape dotted with occasional nightmarish flourishes from his opening appearance.

Clad in a long cream-colored skirt, this bare-chested, melancholy being walked at a near-glacial pace, occasionally dipping at the waist, his beseeching arms piercing the air, the periodic flutterings reminiscent of avian-like origami sculpture, a mood seemingly at odds with a score that commenced with the rhythmically arpeggiated sounds of a harp.

But not for long do we bear witness to this relative calm: A strip of scarlet fabric unfurls next to the sand funnel, accentuating the slash of red on Amagatsu’s face, metaphorical blood spilled from wars, disasters of all stripes and the symbolic toll of being alive in the aging body.

Ghostly, Amagatsu seemed to vanish, ceding the stage to four dancers that, kneeling oh-so-slowly, opened their mouths in silent scream contortions. A wounded but resilient organism also sporting red cheeked-gashes, the quartet maneuvered to the thrashings and crashings of an electric guitar.

This East-meets-West sensibility is apparent in the pulsing percussions and New Agey synthesizers of the ever-vacillating score, one frequently punctuated by bells and thunderous sounds not unlike those heard, perhaps, at a Glenn Branca concert. 

And not for nothing is Butoh called the “dance of darkness,” the Rothko-esque red fabric a strip of oozing hot lava, waltzing flames or a searing, surreal backdrop to these alien creatures who spin, scuttle and splay their fingers, heads often tilting upwards as they search for a deity/entity, be it unnamed, foreign or friendly.

Indeed, the movement might be deemed Baroque, so opulent is it in its starkness, a howling bubbling up from within these protoplasmic bipeds.

Once again there is quiet, this quietude allowing one to almost hear the mesmerizing sand stream as it falls, the stage now also home to red-skirted figures, conceivably a nod to Jiří Kylián’s masterwork, “Bella Figura.” Hands together, in prayer position, these performers are primeval, holy, their draped skirts reminiscent of haute couturier, Vionnet, as they silently mouth their agonies, an anti-utopian longing, with bells and wind chimes now their accompaniment, dangling earrings glinting off their unknowable faces.

The fabric next becomes a monolith of green, bringing to mind Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where excerpts from György Ligeti’s Atmosphères are recalled in this tantalizing score, the dancers struggling against the march of time, trying, alas, to defy the ineffable.

Or could this be the beginnings of time, Kubrickian-style?

The androgynous bodies reveal back muscles and tiny feet that seem to empower them with extra-human dimensions. Another costume change—long-sleeved dresses—conjure a Dojo-esque atmosphere, with the dancers’ life force, chi, charging, pulsating through their flesh and bones, as they deploy a rash of quickening steps over the increasingly granule-covered floor.

We are lulled into a trance, a communal trance whereby the theater is our church, as the stage, beautifully lighted by Genta Iwamura, becomes a seven-scene mini-epic that encompasses life, birth, evolution, death.

And the unknown.

What, ultimately, is known, though, is that these dancing men, these phantasmagorical individuals, touch souls—for those willing to be touched.