Sympathy for Gravity: Sankai Juku

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compare two sprigs of moss

This article appeared in SF Weekly on October 13, 2015

Photo by Sankai Juku via Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

In a 2006 interview, Ushio Amagatsu, founder of the Butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku, contrasts his method of “sympathizing or synchronizing with [the] gravity” with the effort of European and American dance to defy it. If you attend a Sankai Juku performance with ballet as your reference, you might note the lack of lifts and vertiginous leaps. Rather than providing a willful transcendence of the force that keeps us on earth, Sankai Juku (and Butoh more broadly) invites an exploration that is closer to ground. It’s an invitation to adjust your frame of reference, for example by comparing two sprigs of moss. Watching Amagatsu and seven other dancers perform Umusuna: Memories Before History at Yerba Buena on Friday night, I was struck by the feeling that this visually stunning piece was revealing to me the inconsistent nature of my own perception.

As the 90-minute piece progressed, small visual details suddenly seemed to leap out at me, as if they had appeared in defiance of physical law. In the opening sequence, Amagatsu, his body painted white — as is a Butoh dancer’s wont — seemed to acquire red marks below his ears. When had this happened, I wondered? He must have entered with this coloring, nothing on the stage could have provided it — not the sand pouring in a stream from the ceiling, not the pair of hourglasses, not the two slightly raised platforms. I had been compelled by the movements of his hands, so surely I would have noticed if he had red paint waiting there to be applied. The red below his ears was no trick of the light, but it was a foreshadow of the next section of the piece, in which a potent red stripe appeared behind the pouring sand.

Four dancers appeared, wearing red and white corset-dresses and pendulous white earrings. The female garb on these male performers might have been intended to reference the blood-power of women, as suggested by the title of this section, “All that is born.” The dancers’ occasional rapid movements across the stage, their skirts lightly lifted, their upper bodies still, suggested a servant scurrying across an ancient courtyard. They clumped and dispersed and shared phrases, but differences in timing offset one dancer’s movement against the others’. Here too I felt a shift in my perception. The dancers’ all-white faces and bald heads lost the quality of masks. I began to notice more keenly the shape of this one’s skull, that one’s nostrils. When they opened their mouths to let out one of the silent cries that punctuated the entire piece, I thought I could hear the different sounds they would make. This one an “oh,” that one an “ah,” but each and all were engaged in a scream that could accompany a fall to the center of the earth.

I will refrain from recounting every one of the small refinements in awareness worked in me by Sankai Juku. I was surprised by so many small changes — the way the sand on the raised platforms turned from a flat white plain to a textured terrain revealed by yellow light; the way that Amagatsu diverted sand from the pouring stream through his own hand without seeming to break its flow. The red section of blood and loss was offset by a later section of green-lighted dance that seemed a celebration of vibrancy and spring. But each retained undercurrents of the other, and all of the movements expressed an orientation toward the ground rather than the air. The dancers were at once unified in an expression of their animal being and acting as singular creatures alive at a particular moment.

According to the program notes, Umusuna derives from an ancient word meaning “birth,” and also embodies ideas of existence and nothingness. As the eight dancers took their bows (which were as simultaneously distinctive and collectively expressive as their work in the rest of the piece) I thought of the benign face of nature, which looks back at us full of the knowledge that death is a precursor to life as much as its end. The dark places where my awareness cannot be, are, after all, not just indications of my limits, but generative spaces that may bring delight.