The Japanese modern dance movement known as Butoh began as a form of self expression after the Second World War. Semi-naked dancers who shaved their heads bald and covered themselves in white paint from head to toe became the visual trademark. One can say the stark visualization stemmed from the traumas of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Butoh can be viewed at the visual metaphor of nuclear holocaust turned physical expression in the highest form.
The collective known as Sankai Juku is one of the world’s best known Butoh practioners. Founded in 1975 by Amagatsu Ushio, Sanakai Juku shocked the modern dance world with their “ankoku butoh” or “the dance of darkness”. My first exposure of Sankai Juku was their performance at London’s Battersea Power Station which broadcasted on a British television program called, “AfterImage” in 1982. The dancers wore only fundoshi, the traditional Japanese undergarment for men. Some of the dancers were hanging upside down with a rope securing their feet to the railings. They creeped and snaked their way among the rust and industrial debris. It left a lasting impression.
Sankai Juku graced the stage at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2015 NextWave Festival with the work, Umusuna: Memories Before History. It had been a decade since Sanaki Juku graced the stage at BAM. The 90 minute spectacle is an exercise in visual simplicity, aesthetics and movement. The soundtrack was composed by long time musical collaborators Takashi Kato, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. The musical styles range from western classical to stark industrial noises. No matter which style, Sankai Juku rises to the occasion in physically interpreting the music. The stage is sparse, with two hourglass hanging on both sides of the stage. The floor was covered with sand. There was a steady stream of sand flowing from the top of the stage. Overall, the stage looked like a Zen sand garden.
The performers exceled at visual expression with movement, poise and unison. The best parts were when the music stopped and there was nothing but utter silence within the theater. This is were we witness the true power of Sankai Juku: expression at its purest. No sound, no words and no dialog. The dancers use only movement for expression. Even in austere silence, Sankai Juku conveyed the only thing that is constant in life: change. Time flies, nothing is permanent but change. With every moment and foot prints, the once pristine paved sand on the floor changes its landscape. The impression is only temporary. Nothing is permanent. Once you’ve seen Sankai Juku in their element, the impression in your mind becomes permanent.