Finding Balance

Simon Reader reviews a Butoh performance of Sankai Juku’s Kagemi

Butoh emerged in 1960s Japan as a protest against the traditional in dance and art. Dustin W. Leavitt’s article in ascent Issue 31 introduces some of Butoh’s founders – namely Tatsumi Hijikata and his disciples – who aimed to reinvent beauty by confronting the grim reality of the 20th century without flinching. Sankai Juku, a group founded in 1975, performed Kagemi in Montreal from October 12 - 14.

Kagemi was subtitled Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors, an exemplary phrase for esoteric Butoh. In Japanese, kage- means “shadow” and –mi means “to see”. Shadow-seeing. Ushio Amagatsu, founder and artistic director at Sankai Juku, took his inspiration from the seductive evolution of the reflective surface, which moved from the horizontal (water mirrors) to the vertical (today’s glass mirrors). He said, “It encompasses the significant change for the human body from its horizontal position, which is associated with sleep, to its upright position, which is for standing up and being active.”

Seven male dancers formed the cast of Kagemi, all dusted white in Sankai Juku’s trademark rice flour. The set was composed of giant lotus petals, which the dancers interacted with and imitated. One section had two dancers executing identical choreography, as though seeing each other through a mirror, while a third moved between them, anticipating and elaborating on the others’ movements, as though interpreting the reflection itself.

Ushio Amagatsu’s poetic outlook is typical of Butoh, although his accessible concepts are not. Dustin Leavitt’s article gives us a picture of Tatsumi Hijikata in rehearsal, throwing lit cigarettes, ashtrays, cups, and other blunt objects at his dancers in frustration (or education?), bringing home the raw, confrontational emergence of Butoh as an art form. Conversely, Sankai Juku has been criticized for being overly polished and sanitized for Western consumption. The company has had its home in Paris for decades, and Japan seems to be just one stop on its world tours. Amagatsu, however, is very much aware of the tensions inherent in creating for an audience. In a recent interview he used the image of a scale to represent the source of his inspiration, suggesting that his work strives for a balance between culture and universal concepts.

The Butoh dancers in Dustin Leavitt’s article seem more focused on process than product; their practice is geared more toward their own creation and meditation than the effect they will have on an audience. Amagatsu’s pieces, on the other hand, work best on stage before as large a group as possible. They are conversations that require spectators to interact with them.

Throughout the performance of Kagemi, I was constantly aware of the simultaneous presence of two worlds: on one side of the stage, an audience of well-dressed theatre goers, and on the other, bright, ethereal human shapes moving in their own world - one that I could never grasp. Finally, I felt that I was supposed to experience this difference between the everyday, and what lies just beyond it.

Photos by Jacques Denardeaud, courtesy of DanseDanse.

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