Originating in Japan in the late 1960s, Butoh is a darkly expressionist style of movement characterised by elemental gestures, excruciating slowness, gaping mouths and shaven-headed bodies dusted with white powder. Choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, a second-generation Butoh artist, and his all-male company Sankai Juku have had the highest profile in the west – but have also been accused of adding a lacquer of designer sophistication to the style.
the company have been accused of adding a lacquer of designer sophistication to the style
Though it is not the tradition but the work that matters, Kagemi, Sankai Juku’s latest piece shown in the UK, lends support to that charge. Amagatsu is choreographer and designer, and, as always, the set is striking. The stage is decorated with large model flowers, while Amagatsu gesticulates from a raised disc that looks like the pad of a water lily. The flowers rise to the ceiling, where they remain suspended so that the rest of the action, in seven slow-motion episodes, seems subterranean or submerged.
Kagemi plays with the idea suggested in its subtitle, Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors, the seven dancers reflecting or shadowing each other’s movements. Amagatsu looks wonderingly at the palm of his hand, unfurling his fingers like petals. Two dancers match each other symmetrically, while another, at right angles, pitches in a third, out-of-sync dimension. They move in planes and angles, flicking their wrists as if snapping open and shut the mirror on a compact, each abrupt motion sending up a cloud from their powder-covered bodies.
The movement throughout is ritualistic, slow-paced and relentlessly repetitive. The dancers, in monkish robes or loincloths, glide with flat-footed steps or crouch Gollum-like on the floor. One macabre section stands out by contrast: the performers, draped in ink-spattered gowns, daubing their faces with stripes of red and black.
The repetition and empty gesturing of the choreography quickly become wearing. But, movement is only one part of the theatrical experience, and Amagatsu is good at creating stage pictures, a look and a mood. Much of the drama is carried by the music: if only it sounded less bland. But Amagatsu is clearly doing something right: though some walked out, Kagemi nevertheless received a rapturous reception.