Between Mountain and Sea: Butoh Comes to the Joyce

It’s been said that the Butoh dancer is in a state of “hyper-presence,” aware of everything inside and outside of their body.

Japan’s foremost contemporary Butoh dance company, Sankai Juku, is making a rare U.S. tour and stopping at The Joyce Theater through November 5. They will perform KŌSA – between two mirrors, an evening-length work compiling excerpts from the company’s nearly 50-year repertoire. For Butoh enthusiasts, KŌSA is a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to see a retrospective of masterpieces danced by master performers. For those new to Butoh, it’s a perfect introduction to the Japanese dance form.

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KŌSA – between two mirrors. Photo by Steven Pisano

The Tokyo-based Sankai Juku was founded in 1975 by Ushio Amagatsu, who still serves as their Artistic Director, Choreographer and Designer. Amagatsu was born in Yokosuka, Japan in 1949, and trained in both classical and modern dance before finding his home in the Butoh style, which he feels expresses the language of the body most honestly. “Butoh is a dialogue with gravity,” he has said. Not an escape from it, like most other dance forms. In many ways, Butoh is a dialogue with, not an escape from, everything, especially those things we fear and try to avoid. It’s an act of whole-body staring into the metaphysical void.

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To understand Amagatsu’s work, it helps to know a bit about Butoh. Butoh (roughly translated as “dance step”) originated as a revolutionary performance art in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Created in the shadow of WWII and the atomic bombings, it was a rejection of all things Western: Western dance styles (except for German Expressionist dance), Western concerns and capitalism. It was also a rejection of Japanese classical dance which focuses on grace and order, aesthetics that no longer made cultural sense. Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, both trained dancers and credited as the two founders of Butoh, wanted to carve out a space for the grotesque, the perverse, and the disturbing. In other words: everyday life in post-war Japan. Butoh is actually short for Ankoku Butoh (Dance of Darkness), the style’s original name.

Over the years, Butoh has grown lighter, thanks in large part to Amagatsu. When he started choreographing in the mid-1970s, after training with Hijikata, he maintained much of the style’s traditional aspects: the white body makeup (to draw focus away from the individual and toward the movement), the shaved heads (inspired by German dancer and choreographer Herald Kreutzberg), the hyper-controlled slow motion. But his themes were different. Instead of focusing on the devastations of war, death, and disease, he became interested in gravity, evolutionary movement, and transcendence.

Amagatsu’s Sankai Juku helped revolutionize Butoh, leading the style’s second generation and paving the way for its third. They have created more than 16 works and toured internationally since 1980, introducing new audiences to Butoh and winning countless accolades along the way.

KŌSA can be seen as a performance of the evolution of Butoh.

KŌSA – between two mirrors. (C)SANKAI JUKU

Sankai Juku means “studio between mountain and sea,” and that image is present throughout the 90-minute piece. It is present in Genta Iwamura’s watery lighting and Masayo Iizuka’s simple, earthen costumes. It is present in the small piles of sand on the stage and the dancers’ grounded, fluid movements

The coastline has long symbolized the thin line between life and death, a space that Butoh—even contemporary Butoh—philosophically inhabits. While the works of the 1960s waded into the dark water, Amagatsu’s work is decidedly alive.

It’s been said that the Butoh dancer is in a state of “hyper-presence,” aware of everything inside and outside of their body. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant until Sho Takeuchi lifted his arm to begin the performance. To watch him dance is to see a human transformed into other. It is, to be frank, a near-holy experience. His presence filled the entire theater, and no one could take their eyes from his finger slowly pointing up then down, his torso bending to the side like seagrass.

It has also been said that a Butoh dancer “should not dance, but be danced.” The idea is that the dance already exists inside the performer and must emerge from within. This is easier said than done, but Takeuchi and the rest of the all-male cast (Akihito Ichihara, Norihito Ishii, Sōtaro Ito, Taiki Iwamoto, Dai Matsuoka, and Makoto Takese) do it.

KŌSA – between two mirrors. Photo by Steven Pisano

KŌSA is a meditation, but not a relaxing one. It takes on “the anxieties acutely felt by many in the past few years” in a raw, wordless way. Mouths occasionally contort into silent screams, and hands bend into blunt claws. They wipe at the air above their heads in a meaningless ceremonial way. In one unforgettable moment, four dancers paint red wounds on each other’s faces with quick swipes of their fingers. They laugh slowly, ghoulishly, pointing. Then, with horror film timing, they turn to the audience and look right through us. They point and laugh, and the fourth wall isn’t just broken, its very existence is publicly shamed. And then they are dancing again, those beings who were terrifying a moment ago and are now floating across the stage with flower petal delicacy.

The music, by YAS-KAZ and Yoichiro Yoshikawa, is a mash-up of classical Japanese and contemporary music. There is traditional drumming and flute, but also electric guitar and something that sounds like a close-up helicopter. It, too, is at once ancient and avant-garde, though less appealing than the movement.

Near the end, the back curtains part and a bright soapy green scrim wakes us up. As more dancers join the stage, the colors soften to seashell pink and blue and we’re back there, all of us, at the shore.

KŌSA – between two mirrors. Photo by Steven Pisano

Between Mountain and Sea: Butoh Comes to the Joyce