Stylised, symbolic and distilled, this Japanese company’s pieces are the dance equivalent of haikus. Only, you know, much longer.
Ushio Amagatsu founded his all-male company Sankai Juku in 1975. Born in 1949, he had already studied classical and modern dance, but his real passion was a newly emerged Japanese style called butoh. More a philosophy of movement than a dance style as such, butoh had grown from the experimental Japanese performances of the 1960s, and was influenced by German expressionist dance and French surrealist theatre (particularly Artaud), as well as Japanese forms such as kabuki.
Following their first world tour in 1980, Sankai Juku quickly became a fixture on the international circuit, going down particularly well in France, where the company took up residence. In 1985, tragedy struck: a rope snapped during an outdoor performance in Seattle in which the dancers were lowered upside down from a rooftop; one man, Yoshiyuki Takada, died. The rest of the tour was cancelled.
Sankai Juku nevertheless continued to flourish, and remain the world’s best-known butoh troupe.
Watching Sankai Juku
With its shaven-headed dancers, white-powdered bodies, eerie slow motion, contorted shapes and gaping mouths, butoh is sometimes seen as a visceral response to the horrors of Hiroshima. In other words, it’s the dance equivalent of Godzilla.
Sankai Juku certainly has its ancestry in this “dance of darkness”, but Amagatsu has developed a “second-generation” style of butoh – gentler, less bleak, its focus more on mysticism and stage imagery. A typical piece uses slowness and repetition to induce transcendental or meditative states. Their set designs are always stunning.
Ushio Amagatsu is the founder and artistic director. Most of Sankai Juku’s works have been commissioned by the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.
During one Washington performance of Kinkan Shonen, the live peacock that features in the piece flew up from the stage to perch on a balcony. It was doubtless symbolic of something. With Sankai Juku, everything is.
In their own words
“There is no way that one can understand the nature of light if one never observes deeply the darkness.” – Amagatsu, interview with Nadine Meisner, Independent 2001
“When people see my performance… I want them to see not only with their eyes, but with their whole being.” – Amagatsu, interview with Alexandra Paszkowska
In other words
“A vision of a world that exists beneath the surface of things” – Washington Times 2008
“Amagatsu has married his apocalyptic, expressionist dance form to a sure sense of theatricality.” – Rachel Howard, San Francisco Chronicle 2006
“The singular glory of Sankai Juku is that it achieves almost pure metaphor.” – Jay Cocks, Time magazine 1985
That’ll impress people. Literally meaning “flower, bird, wind, moon”, the poetic message of this Japanese saying is: experience nature’s beauty, and in doing so learn about yourself.
It won’t happen.
Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata are considered the founders of butoh dance.
Other butoh performers include Min Tanaka and Anzu Furukawa (Japan), Carlotta Ikeda (France) and Marie-Gabrielle Rotie (UK).
Now watch this
Where to see Sankai Juku next
See the Sankai Juke website for performance dates.