Profound, perplexing Sankai Juku
The lobby was jammed. When an anxious crowd tried to press into an understaffed Boston Opera House recently to see Sankai Juku - the popular new Japanese avant-garde dance company - chaos erupted. Irate people pushed and shoved, while others tried to relax and wait out the storm.Skip to next paragraph
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When we finally burst through the two small openings to the theater, there was a tremendous feeling of release, of calm and order restored.
Watching Sankai Juku is very much like the above scenario: It is a form of dance-theater that speaks of tension and release, anxiety and peace, confusion and order.
Especially when they dangle from the tops of ten-story buildings. Before each major performance, the Sankai Juku dancers stage a public ''hanging'' in each city they visit. At these events, four of the dancers - covered with white makeup, their heads shaved, and nearly naked - are lowered down the side of a tall building by ropes wrapped around their ankles, while they hang upside down, dancing with their arms and upper torso.
Sankai Juku, however, is much more than a spectacle; it is a performing troupe presenting a unique form of Japanese dance - called Buto - that has stunned audiences across North America this summer and fall with its highly controlled, emotionally extreme, and dramatically riveting style. Created in the 1960s out of dissatisfaction with traditional Western and Japanese forms, Buto draws on these traditions to create a radically different vision of self-expression. Writes the company in its program: ''The white face of the Geisha (dancer, a traditional Japanese form) represents a being transfixed, but the whitened face of the Buto dancer is the moving face of humanity, actually in touch with innocence, wonder, fear, and mortality.''
It is this juxtaposition of antithetical feelings and ideas, exploring the very boundaries of human experience, that is the essence of Sankai Juku's form of Buto.
Take, for example, this scene from ''Kikkan Shonen,'' the company's first full-length production, which debuted in Tokyo in 1978. Ushio Amagatsu - founder and artistic director of the five-man company - enters the stage covered in a purple robe, appearing to be a midget (he is squatted down as he moves). He waddles about, smiling and laughing as he encounters different objects on the stage. Yet these simple facial expressions are so brilliantly and vividly portrayed that he quickly has the entire audience smiling and laughing with him.
But the joy lasts only moments. His smile turns to a grimace, laughter becomes hysteria. At one point, with some difficulty, he mounts a small platform. The audience cheers. Then, he falls off the edge flat onto his nose. A feeling of pain and loss pervades. But wait - the robe unravels, and his fall becomes a release, as the man fully extends himself and dances about the stage with glee.
Other scenes from ''Kikkan Shonen'' show four members of the company - again nearly naked and covered in white powder - swaying about sensually, sometimes erotically, to rock music that blasts gratingly through the speakers.