Time, Nature, and Sankai Juku

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Sankai Juku has been coming to Seattle for 30 years, performing here multiple times in several different dance works, but it seems that the more we see them, the more the work just appears to be one long exploration of human animals and the natural world. For their latest visit, the company performed their new work Umusuna, and though it is a distinct and separate creation from other works in other years, the fundamental experience is the same—we leave the theater with a deeper understanding of our humanity, and our eccentric connection to nature.

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Sankai Juku in Umusuna
Photo courtesy of Sankai Juku

The work opens on a pair of hourglasses, each suspended over a large disc and hanging one on either side of the stage. A thin stream of sand trickles out of each glass and onto the disc.  The stream is small enough that it’s really not visible from the audience—the only way we know it exists is the pile of sand that accumulates below. These are matched by a larger sandfall upstage center—coming from above the curtain and collecting on the floor, it’s another gauge of time passing. It’s an interesting linear element in a movement world that appears to have very few other rules.

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Sankai Juku in Umusuna
Photo courtesy of Sankai Juku

Founder and artistic director Ushio Amagatsu appears as a solo dancer in Umusuna, with a gestural vocabulary that conjures all kinds of images without being specifically about any one thing. He’s not imitating a branch or a stone, but we fill in the space around his tracery with the images that mean something to us individually. In a pre-show lecture, local butoh artists Joan Laage, Kaoru Okumura, and Diana Garcia Snyder agreed that the work was not about “movement” in a traditional dance technique context, but rather about a sense of self-awareness and aliveness.  A dancer could learn to copy the external shapes and patterns of Amagatsu’s solo, but it wouldn’t be worth the time it would take.

UMUSUNA de Ushio Amagatsu
Sankai Juku in Umusuna
Photo by Laurent Philippe

After that opening solo, the work transitions to a series of small ensemble dances with shifting casts. The movement is full of finely calibrated adjustments, so that postures change gradually.  Butoh training doesn’t emphasize a unison approach to movement, but the dancers do seem to subsume themselves to the group—we can recognize individuals but they’re not projecting an individual vibe. In some ways, they resemble a corps de ballet, where the emphasis is on “look at us” rather than “look at me,” but the movement vocabulary is far from that classical formalism. Some of it has the simplicity of pedestrian activity (walking, shifting, running), with a more self-aware inflection. And while there are moments of theatrical intensity (as in a long sequence with several performers laying on their bellies, arching back with mouths open like fish on a hook) they are the exception to the overall gestalt. The longer we spend in this environment, the less like a theater it seems. At some point, the stage floor becomes the ground.

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Sankai Juku in Umusuna
Photo courtesy of Sankai Juku

During all of this the sand continues to fall upstage, and the air in the auditorium has a dusty tang. The two hourglasses rise and fall, and a clangorous section of the score sounds like a carillon—almost as if we are in the middle of a Japanese clockwork. When Amagatsu reappears in another solo, and steps into that shower, the sand creates a kind of hazy penumbra, obscuring some of the details we might recognize from his earlier solo. It is close to the end, but even as the cast finishes their last sequence, the sand is still falling. The performance is complete, but time will outlast us all.

Sankai Juku’s performance of Umusuna ran at Meany Hall October 1-3, 2015, as part of the UW World Series. More information about Sankai Juku can be found on their website. More information about UW’s World Series can be found here.