Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Eerie, Exotic and Japanese Modern Dance Troupe Is Resolutely Austere

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Eerie, Exotic and Japanese Modern Dance Troupe Is Resolutely Austere

Article excerpt

IF THEIR WHITENESS were purer, they might be likened to mimes or clowns.

But the trademark coloring of the Sankai Juku troupe is more subtle than bold, and its eerie pallor discourages laughter.

Covered from head to toe in a paste made from rice powder, these men appear human only to a certain extent. When they move slowly, as they often do, one thinks of granite statues brought laboriously to life; when the pace quickens, the image is that of flittering ghosts, or - more scary - corpses risen from the grave. Ashen, dusty, seemingly drained of blood, the members of Sankai Juku make an unforgettable impression from the moment they take the stage.

They make an impression with their dancing, as well, but typically the way they dance is much more difficult to describe than the way they look.

The Japanese company, which performs at Washington University's Edison Theatre next weekend, is the world's best-known exponent of the eerily exotic dance style called butoh.

Like so many things Japanese, in the ears of a Westerner the word butoh resonates with ambiguity. It is a noun that, according to the dictionary, means simply "dance" or "dance step." But people close to the butoh scene will translate it as "dance of darkness," or "dark soul dance," or even "dance of death."

In any case, butoh is a profoundly expressive yet resolutely austere form of dance theater that developed in Japan in the early 1960s.

Its founding fathers were Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, modernist choreographers who sought to break as much with Western influences as with Japan's centuries-old traditions of kabuki and noh. In its first decade, butoh dealt almost exclusively with emotions prompted by memories of Japan's nuclear holocaust.

Later butoh artists took a broader view, and their tone - relatively speaking - grew lighter. Today's butoh is rarely so violent or horrific as the original experiments, and it is not without humor. Viewed alongside the typical example of American or European modern dance, however, even the bubbliest butoh seems stark. The set designs, like the costumes, are usually devoid of color; most of the movement is slow and deliberate, sometimes concentrated for long moments in the raising of an eyebrow or the curling of a finger; however uniform might be the audience's response to a particular image or action, seldom is the entire meaning of a butoh composition easily grasped.

The piece that Sankai Juku will present at Edison Theatre was premiered in Paris in October of 1988, one year after the company last performed in St. Louis. It's called "Shijima"; I have no idea how the word translates literally, but the English equivalent provided by the company is "The Darkness Calms Down in Space."

Choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku in 1975, fits "Shijima" with a textual gloss that is as cryptic as its title. …

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