New York

Sankai Juku

City Center

Sankai Juku is a Japanese performance group representing the third generation of a Japanese dance/theater genre called Butoh, an art distinguished more by an attitude than by any technique or form. Emerging from the social turmoil that swept Japanese culture in the ’60s, Butoh was a reaction against the mores of the time, which were formal and rigid both in the traditional Japanese performing arts and in the society at large. Butoh was brutal, assaultive, and sensational; its images and tone projected disaster and despair, a state of mind familiar to the postwar, postnuclear generation. And Butoh was extratheatrical—performances took place mostly in jazz clubs and small spaces.

Since these early, angry beginnings Butoh has in some ways moved back into line with Japanese performing traditions, though the primitive rituals of ancient Japan have proved more fruitful for it than the later, more elaborate forms we think of as typically Japanese. Sankai Juku, led by its founder, Ushio Amagatsu, has also explored often spectacular tableaux, while retaining the emotional charge (though not the grotesquerie) of Butoh’s violent expressiveness. A mystical bent is evident in Amagatsu’s definition of Butoh: “Butoh belongs both to life and to death. It is a realization of the distance between a human being and the unknown.”

In their most startling work Sankai Juku hang upside down from long ropes on the outside of a public building. (In New York, the site was the City Center Theater, on 55th Street.) Four men, their nearly nude bodies coated with a white powder, are slowly lowered while performing slow-paced, choreographed movements with finesse and concentration. Their sheer physical virtuosity, their radiant calm, and the work’s weighty emotional intensity move it beyond the field of the sensationalistic stunt and into a realm of eerie visionary spectacle.

Kinkan Shonen, 1978, is the earliest piece in the group’s repertory, but it remains stunning. Imagine a new combination of effects: the severe physical control of Jerzy Grotowski crossed with Noh theater; Robert Wilson’s visual splendor and coordination of scenery, costume, and lighting; the partnership of music and action in Meredith Monk’s work; and the emotional intensity of a Carl Dreyer film. Like all Sankai Juku’s work, Kinkan Shonen comes with philosophy attached: literally, the title means “The kumquat seed,” and a subtitle reads, "A young boy’s dream of the origins of life and death.” But the piece’s seven episodes so perfectly embody its primal, neo-Jungian content that no recourse to a philosophic gloss is necessary.

Kinkan Shonen begins with Amagatsu dressed as a schoolboy, his body and clothes covered in a white dust; suddenly, he pitches backward, landing flat on his back with a thud—a reminder that this dreamy version of Butoh has not completely given up the startling move. A hand-cranked air raid siren begins to wail and Amagatsu frantically shovels sandlike powder into his mouth, locating the scene in an end-of-the-war Japan and setting a framework for the dream/memory sequences that follow. These include a segment in which a quartet of four masked figures contort first their hands, then their entire bodies, to a raucous “no-wave” rock soundtrack; they finally sashay offstage after a sideways dance has gradually wriggled them out of their robes. In a tour de force solo Amagatsu makes himself shrink to dwarf size, either laughing or crying soundlessly as he scuttles about the stage; eventually achieving his full height, he careens wildly to the keening sounds of vigorous bagpipe music. This solo is a physical and emotional act of the highest order. The equally impressive finale is an oceanic vision in which Amagatsu hangs upside down, suspended from a triangular red pennant that spins in a shaft of deep blue light. This transcendent image is a powerful end to a hypnotic, emotionally believable performance.

John Howell