Sankai Juku

October 24, 2006

Sankai Juku
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, NY

October 24-29, 2006

Reviewed by Elizabeth Zimmer

Sankai Juku in Kagemi�Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors
Photo by Jack Vartoogian, courtesy BAM

Combine the slo-mo activities of traditional butoh and the glamorous surfaces of contemporary fashion marketing, and you’ll have an idea of what transpired during the recent visit of this Paris-based Japanese troupe. Choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku in 1975, is a trained classical and modern dancer, and his 90-minute Kagemi—Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors projects an obsession with image and surface. A field of white lotus flowers magically floats upward from the stage floor to become a kind of canopy, simultaneously revealing two trios, one lying down and one sitting with backs to the audience and knees pulled up, that have been hidden among their stalks.

The seven performers, all male, dusted with chalky powder, perform to Takashi Kako and Yoichiro Yoshikawa’s music, which is by turns quiet and percussive. Their approach to space and time, while leisurely, is much more akin to Western theatrical imagery than to the gnarled, desperate-looking figures of much other butoh dance. They respond to the rhythmicity of the score, moving in ways at once powerful and delicate, assisted by dramatic changes of lighting and the occasional detail of costuming.

Slashes of red peek from the armpits of some costumes, and in one scene the white outfits seem to have been rolled in ashes and blood. It’s all hypnotically beautiful; at one point I realized I was barely breathing. But it’s also somewhat vacant. The real and imagined affronts to Japanese life that instigated the form of butoh more than half a century ago are utterly missing here, leaving only elegant outfits, trendy shapes, a dusty atmosphere, and sound designed to manipulate emotion, sometimes loud and apocalyptic, sometimes gently plinking. Amagatsu also designed the set and costumes, and by the end I was wishing he’d open a boutique here, so stunning were the long white shifts—carefully slit, genderless—worn by the dancers. Like priests in a cathedral, they seem to sanctify the space, but the god they worship is strangely elusive. See