Sankai Juku brings Butoh back

Nov. 5, 2010, 12:42 a.m.

Sankai Juku brings Butoh back
(Courtesy of Sankai Juku)

On Nov. 9, Stanford Lively Arts will welcome Sankai Juku, a Butoh-inspired troupe based in Paris. With it comes the Bay Area premiere of its show, “Tobari (As if in an Inexhaustible Flux).” Founder Ushio Amagatsu leads the troupe – established in 1975 – in an astounding depiction of human universality, a “primitive impulse” binding together stories of mythology and fantasy.

The exploration of such strange and diverse tensions should not be surprising. Butoh, after all, was an art form founded post-World War II, a breakaway from existing forms of Japanese dance. One of Butoh’s founders, Tatsumi Hijikata, desired the creation of a profound dance form, one that did not simply imitate Western styles or classical Japanese musical drama. Butoh thus explores the taboo and the extreme, the psychological and the physical. It questions the status quo, and delves deep into emotions that drive human nature. Yet, as critic Mark Holborn said, Butoh is defined by its very evasion of definition: it has no fixed style.

Taking elements from Butoh, Sankai Juku performs in white body make-up. Its all-male cast wears robes, sarongs and shaven heads, the simplicity of their costuming underscoring the abstraction and complexity of their pieces. Huffington Post writer Jack Schimmelman described watching Sankai Juku’s performances as listening to the sound of breath, or listening to infinity. In his words, the troupe strips all accessories of humanity. The audience begins with nothing, but learns much in the course of an evening – of sadness, of anger, of elation, mixed together in a melting pot of human emotion.

Nov. 9’s “Tobari” adheres to the troupe’s distinct approach to performance. “Tobari” in Japanese literally refers to a curtain. Yet, the performance, which centers on the central image of stars, deepens its title’s meaning. Founder Amagatsu interprets the word “tobari” as a figurative curtain, a “border between day and night” that challenges our notions of time. He notes that we see stars in the present tense, when in fact the starlight originated millions of light years ago. Deviating from popularized notions of Butoh, “Tobari” additionally uses bright colors and variations of speed to generate tensions between past and present.

The complexity of time is not the only richness in “Tobari’s” fabric. Amagatsu further weaves into Sankai Juku’s performance his philosophy of maintaining ambiguity. While he claims that it is a tendency “very Japanese,” the idea of gray areas and paradoxes is a universal one. Without attempting to pound into the audience specific judgments or statements, Sankai Juku presents us with philosophical difficulties that have no answer. For one, Amagatsu suggests, our individual life is limited and discontinuous, but life itself is a continuity. Humans possess, then, both eternity and impermanence, but how does dance describe this? How can we conceptualize its consequences?

Impression, for Sankai Juku, is more important than comprehension. In seven scenes and 90 minutes, “Tobari (As if in an Inexhaustible Flux)” certainly promises to challenge our notions of time, space and way of thinking.

Sankai Juku comes to Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for Stanford students, $28-68 for adults.

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