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Sankai Juku Dance

November 4, 2015

UMUSUNA – Memories before History

Reviewed November 3, 2015

NAC Southam, Ottawa

Photo Courtesy of Sankai Juku

Photo Courtesy of Sankai Juku

While the stage set for Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA – Memories before History is magnificent and mesmerizing, with its symbolic “sands of time” forever reminding us of eternity, choreographer Ushio Amagatsu has created a butoh work that is interminably slow and lengthy.

Of course, the butoh Japanese dance theatre that arose in the post-war 1950s is an art form that generally features slow hyper-controlled motion and often grotesque imagery.

But this one-and-a-half-hour piece of theatre that features eight dancers working their way through seven story vignettes called by such names as “All that is born,” “In winds blown to the far distance” and “Mirror of forests” is simply too long.

The audience appears to be irrelevant to the performance, although in Ottawa on Tuesday they gladly offered a standing ovation at the end. We could imagine that the highly focused disciplined dancers would mark time in deliberate slow motion through the still, meditative presentation, whether or not anyone was watching.

UMUSUNA presents an unfolding landscape of the earth, of birth and of experiencing the world. Wearing the white body makeup typical of butoh dancers, Amagatsu and his seven non-gender-specific dancers, one of whom has been with the company since its beginnings, trace gentle, slow movements through dusty grains of sand. They seem to be etching time itself with their intricate weaving finger movements and lengthened drawing of limbs through the air. At times, sudden movements toss fine dust and grains of sand above the stage, forming an art work of their own.

White-washed with smooth bald heads, mostly bare-chested but sometimes confined in tight corsets, and draped in long flowing skirts, the dancers have been stripped of all individuality or character. They are images in the dry, stark landscape, representing some type of life form emerging from the beginning of time.

The work uses primary and secondary colours and clearly defined elaborate lighting by Genta Iwamura to evoke fear, wonder, awakening, growth. A primordial glow is cast over the stage. Sometimes the dancers’ bodies are horizontal and they move like worms or primitive creatures through the dusty earth.

Photo courtesy of Sankai Juku

Photo Courtesy of Sankai Juku

The stage art is an essential element of the work: two raised platforms covered with sand, hourglasses suspended above the stage that slowly release their grains of sand and, most strikingly, a column of sand that falls continuously through the show.

Over the last 50 years, artists have created their own versions of butoh, and Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku 40 years ago, says for him the essential element of butoh is the “dialogue of gravity” from birth through learning to stand and walk. He says it’s about exploring the personal experience of universality and the universality of the body.

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From → Contemporary

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