Sankai Juku is one of Japan’s premier Butoh dance companies. Founded and Directed by Ushio Amagatsu, the company has been touring since 1980 and is one of the only companies to be continuously commissioned by the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. The company recently brought their newest work Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land to University of Washington’s Meany Center for the Performing Arts.
Watching Sankai Juku is like watching a sunset. Moments of fiery, brilliant intensity are paired directly near those of delicate softness. I am reminded of our belonging and responsibility to earth, air, fire, and water; each element of the planet we call home. Every movement is an investigation of what it means to be connected to one another and to the natural world in a web of physical and metaphysical forces.
The extremes of nature are present in the movement and the bodies of the dancers themselves. In a particularly powerful section, four dancers rise from the ground as a tremble grips them; the entire visual scene seems to shake as their bodies become the shifting tectonic plates of an earthquake. They advance forward together, their limbs and torsos crackling and popping like the twisting flames of a forest fire.
In a contrasting moment, the dancers are the ocean. They embody the sea’s ability to be both a rocking cradle and a furious, teeming beast. Each spine a tentacle of seaweed tossed by the ocean’s salty waves. The palms a dark, thunderous rain cloud spitting lightning through each electric finger. The dancers open their mouths into a wide, gaping O. The darkness contrasts with the whiteness of their powdered skin, reminiscent of the mystery of the birth canal or the finality of the grave.
The meditative pace of the work is transportive. Time is meaningless as each movement unfolds into the next. A careful walk from one point to another slows such that its magnitude swells, as captivating as the creeping power of hot magma. The soundless transfer of weight from one foot to the next echoes the eternal timing of the earth’s rotation. Those who are able to steady their attention will become enraptured in Meguri’s world. Some, like my neighbor in the audience, will instead fall into dreaming.
Each element of the stage set is in relationship to the whole of the impeccably crafted design, with traveling light waves a central scenic element. A transparent grid of rectangles carved with the image of sea lily fossils towers behind the stage, transforming as it interacts with light. A warm soft glow from behind becomes a menacing glare as a bright red light cuts across from the top left corner. Each satisfying beam of light interacts with the scenic elements as the last perfect piece of a puzzle.
The dancers’ interactions with one another are similarly symbiotic. Each shift of the dancers triggers a wave of response. Balance is never sacrificed. In one sequence, four dancers lay on their backs in a cross, their heads facing in toward one another. Effortlessly, they curl their torsos away from the floor and then relax. Their arms and legs drift gently upward, each joint an easy crease bowing slightly to gravity’s pull. Their pinky fingers reach towards the sky like the pollen-heavy stamen of a flower. An image harmoniously symmetrical without becoming monotonously synchronous. Each of the dancer’s bodies expresses the movement with a subtle individuality while maintaining powerful energetic attunement to the rest of the group.
The devotion to balance, the central role of the power of illumination, and the portrayal of polarity all tie the work directly back to Mother Earth. Meguri is a celebration of humanity’s belonging to the natural world. The work seems an ode, perhaps a surrender, to the wisdom of nature’s rhythm.