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Movement Echo

In Sankai Juku's “Kōsa,” bodies don't just speak, they echo. Movement is generated on dancers then released into the air. It spirals and grows as clouds of white powder radiate off each dancer's painted skin. In butoh custom, the powder is part of the dance, a distinguishing characteristic which acts as an expressionist tool as well as an allusion to the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. (Japanese butoh or “dance of darkness” emerged in response to the Second World War and the atomic bombs, in particular). 

Performance

Sankai Juku: “Kōsa”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, October 30, 2023

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Sankai Juku's “Kōsa.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Ushio Amagatsu, the company's founder and choreographer, considers "Kōsa" a kind of compilation of his vast repertoire (the company has been performing since 1975). Amagatsu often works with extensive sets and scenic material, but "Kōsa" goes back to basics with only simple costume, emphasizing the movement principles of butoh. 

One of these defining principles is an inherent slowness. An early section of "Kōsa" follows a single figure who is surrounded by four dancers. The surrounding dancers perform hand movements with thumbs pointing then fingers curling in claws. They circle the central dancer, who moves only slightly with reaches as if trying to escape. The slow-motion is so entrancing that the audience hardly notices the trajectory of the group, which eventually makes its way across the stage almost surreptitiously. The slowness implies some other sense of time, a separate dimension that doesn't adhere to the meter of everyday life. 

Sankai Juku's “Kōsa.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Butoh is also recognized for its exaggerated use of facial expressions which tend toward the grotesque. Mouths are stretched between smiles and sobs; eyes are squeezed shut then sprung open, rolling in the sockets. In "Kōsa," this use of the face develops subtly, but it certainly takes its toll. 

Towards the middle of the piece, the dancers reenter wearing dark dresses. Renewing the use of the fingers and thumbs, the dancers begin to mime scratching each other. Somehow, they have hidden red and blue paint that suddenly appears on their faces once scratched. They laugh silently at this discovery, mouths pulled open wide, dark, and empty. 

Perhaps the most disruptive part of the piece comes right after this, when the dancers shift from laughing at their own expense to laughing at the expense of each other. The thumbs turn back into claws, and one dancer marks a zigzag in the air across the body of another. The aggressive dancer explodes back into laughter which reverberates in bobs across the group. The heads of these dancers turn up and sideways uproariously. 

Sankai Juku's “Kōsa.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The face of the violated dancer, however, drifts upside-down. His eyebrows droop and his mouth closes as he cowers in the commotion. This event is repeated throughout the group so that each dancer is ultimately violated once, then mocked wickedly by the rest. Each time is an unbearable sight of cruelty. 

There is not much of a resolution to these terrifying moments. In the end, it is just the slowness that prevails. The dancers lead with their arms and press their feet into the ground, inching their way across the stage. We can still see footprints on the floor from the beginning, when dancers ran laps, leaving behind an ashen, cyclic path to nowhere. Meanwhile, the echo hovers above them, swirls into the walls, and evaporates into the audience.

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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