Semi-spoiler alert: Do not arrive late for the butoh company Sankai Juku's Umusuna: Memories Before History this week at Carolina Performing Arts. Its opening image is one you might never forget. Here's a hint—it involves 66-year-old company founder Ushio Amagatsu and a lot of sand.
Butoh, the Japanese dance-theater form that emerged at the end of the turbulent, post-A-bomb 1950s, is easier described than explained. Colored white with talc, dancers move with excruciating slowness to form striking tableaux. With their limbs held in contorted figures and faces frozen into grotesque masks, they compose horrifying, absurd or even humorous scenes. Although it's hard to summarize butoh, it's immediately recognizable and emotionally powerful.
The term "butoh" means "dance of darkness." In the 1960s, performances by founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno shined stage lights on all that had been pushed into the postwar darkness of our individual and collective souls. The shocking, stylized existential cries and social indictments of early butoh are still common, but the form has developed a contemplative side to also express beauty, memory, presence or inner peace.
Founded in 1975, Sankai Juku embodies this contemporary side of butoh. While still resistant to formalism—butoh has never had a specific movement vocabulary—Sankai Juku has remained true to the foundational strategy of spectacle, while nonetheless modulating it through the decades.
The company is known for a crisp visual elegance that cirque fans will recognize. Site-specific performances atop poles or on the faces of buildings have also seemed to nod to circus movement. Sankai Juku presents an open-ended vision that prompts excited or meditative engagement rather than a confrontational one that shocks and awes.
"Umusuna," which means "place of one's birth" in Japanese, falls on the meditative end of the company's repertoire. While its deep, color-drenched staging might sound blatant, or even aggressive, the subtlety of the movement contains the extravagant visual design. The womblike stage seems to exist in timeless and placeless suspension, as if the audience were dreaming it into being, or accessing prenatal memory.
Although it appears effortless and smooth, the dancers' meditative movement requires great discipline, focus and physical strength. Sometimes a dancer will appear to be a frozen statue, but after you look at performers elsewhere onstage, the dancer will have changed position. It messes with one's sense of time.
Old-school butoh was a wordless, subversive expression of cultural displacement as rapid westernization smashed into the native traditions of a country closed to the world since medieval times. Sankai Juku finds ways of resolving modern and ancient truths onstage—a cultural replacement, not displacement. Umusuna is designed to emanate the contemplation of one's very humanity, which might be the most subversive act of all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Slow and heady"