Envisioning the creation of the world – UMUSUNA by Sankai Juku

Every theatergoer dreams of encountering a work that would let them speechless for hours, mesmerized by a world in which time has stopped, whose beauty stays with them long after the curtain was dropped.

Sankai Juku’s performance 歴史以前の記憶―うむすな “UMUSUNA – Memories before History” had just this kind of effect on its audience when it was performed back in May at the Setagaya Public Theatre. This work had its premiere in 2012 at Opera de Lyon, France. Soon after its founding in 1975, the Butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku 山海塾 began performing overseas, winning high acclaim for the artistry of its works. Since 1980 the company has been present every year with a new performance in Europe and North America.

The founder and artistic director of Sankai Juku, Amagatsu Ushio 天児牛大 belongs to the second generation of Butoh artists, trained by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, the ones who established Butoh 舞踏 as an art in the period after the end of the war. These artists sought a dance expression free both of the constraints of Japanese traditional performing arts and of the rapidly expanding Western contemporary dance practices. At the same time it should have been an expression mirroring the spirit of the times they were living, times marked by despair, chaos and trauma after the war. Their search lead to the emergence of ankoku butoh 暗黒舞踏 “the dance of darkness”. While the dancers’ bodies are painted white, as if to erase any trace of the performer’s persona, the dance itself is extremely slow and “broken”, bordering the grotesque. Hijikata and Ohno had both their own ways of performing and teaching Butoh and there is no wonder that their disciples went on to seek individual forms of expression within the frame of Butoh, distancing themselves to a certain degree from the vision of their masters.

This is the case of Amagatsu Ushio, who lead Butoh into a more balanced, graceful direction. After all, the times have changed and the wounds of the war, though they may have not disappeared, have moved into the background. The themes he is dealing with at present are universal, appealing to spectators from every corner of the world, for example life and death, time, light and shadows, sound and the absence of it. These are all subjects for meditation and contemplation, not only for the artists themselves, who undergo rigorous training in order to achieve the transfigured expression aimed by Butoh, but also for the audiences, who are faced with the “out of the ordinary” entering all of a sudden into their daily lives.

As regards his view upon dance, Amagatsu often states that he conceives Butoh as a “dialogue with gravity” (you can read more about it in this interview). He is thus distinguishing himself from the many artists who aim to defy gravity or to project the dancing body into a space where gravity is suspended. This accounts for the calmness and the balance that make up the beauty of Sankai Juku’s performances.

UMUSUNA is an impressive rendering of the creation of the earth. The title alludes to birth –  産む“umu”, “ubusu” – and also to Being and Non-being , 有無”umu”.

From the beginning, there is sand falling and accumulating on two symmetrically positioned glass surfaces, which go in and out of equilibrium several times. This is not only an allusion to the passing and amassing of time, but it actually hints at the beginning of cosmic movement. One after another, the elements enter the stage: fire, earth, water, air, wood and again time, interpreted by the members of Sankai Juku. They perform on two rectangular platforms, slightly elevated above ground and covered with sand.

UMUSUNA - Memories before History © Sankai Juku

UMUSUNA – Memories before History
© Sankai Juku

The sudden change from a motionless, atemporal state to speedy movements on a color-laden background announces the beginning of a transformative process. As a spectator, you have the impression that what you see is the heat from the core of the earth, with lava bursting out and rocks being set in motion, with continents coming into shape. In the next scene, the performers stay motionless as rocks and plants at the bottom of the sea. Soon, at first with almost imperceptible, brisk movements, they deliver the image of living beings ready to leave the sea for the ground. The next two scenes, of the wind and the rain forest, are just as powerful, culminating with a return to the all-surrounding sand and the meditation on time which it symbolizes. What their dance seems to hint at is that Time itself is the soul of all motion and the ultimate principle of the dynamics of cosmos and nature.

With the performers getting in and out of synchronicity, you feel you are the witness of an ever-changing landscape. Not only the dynamics on stage, but also the powerful colors used in costumes and lighting, to which the heart of the spectator reacts instantly, amount to impressive visuals. For the music which backs up the dance of the performers, three composers have joined their efforts – Kako Takashi, YAS-KAZ and Yoshikawa Yōichirō, using a wide range of instruments: from acoustic guitar, harp, piano and Japanese koto, to the heavily distorted sound of electric and bass guitars.

The story of the genesis, spanning over eons and contracted in a moment of artistic insight, ends with all the dancers in fetal position. They are about to be born. Everything is just about to begin.

Among the old artistic theories, there is one stating that the reason why humans create art is that they have a longing for something and want to see it before their eyes. Sankai Juku took up the challenge of materializing a vision which has been haunting humankind ever since its beginning, that is, the mystery of the creation of the world. The amassing of time and the convulsions which must have been going on for life to emerge – they all become a beautiful landscape unfolding before the spectators’ eyes. You are left with the feeling that, like a child, you have seen the world for the first time.

For amazing stage photographs and information on future performances, visit the website of Sankai Juku. I will leave you with images from another performance of theirs, “TOBARI – As if in an Inexhaustible Flux”:

Dancing about architecture – Teshigawara Saburō

Coined to express the impossibility of describing one art by the means of another, the quote I used in the title suggests what I will attempt to do in this article, namely to describe in words a dance performance. It’s not only difficult, but it is to some point even meaningless, especially when the artist is none other than Teshigawara Saburō 勅使河原三郎, a leading figure of the contemporary dance scene in Japan.

Active as a dancer and director, founder of the contemporary dance unit KARAS, Teshigawara Saburō is an internationally acclaimed choreographer, with intense activity overseas. He has developed an original method of training the dancing body, which stresses the importance of the breathing process. As an artist who feeds on challenges, he is taking the body to the limits of its physicality, while his experiments with light, sound and reflecting surfaces result in a visual transfiguration of the performing body. Recent performances of KARAS include DAH-DAH-SKO-DAH-DAH, inspired by the work of writer Miyazawa Kenji, presented at Festiva/Tokyo 2012 (you can read here an insightful article on this performance by theatre blogger William Andrews).


Poster for the performance “Haru, ichiya nishite” at Theater X, March 4th-5th

One of Teshigawara’s latest works is Haru, ichiya ni shite (“Spring, in one night”), performed at Theater X (Kai) on March 5th. This work was inspired by “Spring”, a short story by Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who is known in his country as a “painter of words”. Schulz actually professed as a painter until the end of his life. His prose has the distinct atmosphere of mystical landscape, against which human characters act and live their lives, always at the risk of being drawn in and destroyed.

The beauty of the flow of words and the tension that exude from Schulz’s prose have reached the audience of Teshigawara’s performance directly, as fragments of the text in an excellent Japanese translation were being read by a narrator. In fact, the voice of the narrator and the occasional nature sounds – rain, flowing water and wind – together with long, uneasy silence formed the entire auditory background of the performance. There was actually no place and no need for music in that tension laden space, defined solely by the bodies ready to give themselves at any time to movement.

Teshigawara chose to represent the main character of “Spring” as a ningyō shintai 人形身体 – a puppet at the mercy of history’s brutality. There was something childish and helpless about this body, reminding that, indeed, Schulz’s “spring” is not only the season of all possibilities, but also the young age, the time of youthful enthusiasm and passionate search for a deep meaning to every encounter.

The boy’s infatuation with the white apparition of Bianca (played by Satō Rihoko) takes center stage, imbuing the story with warmth and hope. In deep contrast to her, the rest of the characters are representations of violence – dark, disproportionate bodies, whose appearance and acts fringe the absurd.

Last but not least, nature itself is present on the stage: the dancers’ bodies seem to become themselves the wind, the storms and the clear, flowing water that accompany the arrival of spring. All the energy latent in this season, busting out in a single, critical moment, is given expression through movement.

The flow of events, in which humans are mercilessly trapped, escalates to a point that physically annihilates the main character. However, in the nearly surreal settings imagined in Bruno Schulz’s prose, death is only the entrance into a higher realm of existence. After the light, the colors and the sounds have disappeared, the character played by Teshigawara renounces his puppet shape, transcending into a new self.

Although inspired by a painting-like story, in this performance Teshigawara Saburō does not dance about architecture, but I am convinced he would do it brilliantly, if he would ever set his mind on it. Due to the high acclaim it received, “Spring – in one night” will be performed again this year (from June 25th through 27th) at Theater X in Ryōgoku, together with another work inspired by the prose of Bruno Schulz, Dodo to kichigaitachi. For more information visit the website of KARAS.