Yuragi: In a Space of Perpetual Motion

Sankai Juku

at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie,

November 26 and 27

By Joseph Houseal

Maybe 90s globalism will render the brutal originality of Japanese butoh as the cherry blossoms: precious, scattered, transient. Sankai Juku’s 1993 Yuragi: In a Space of Perpetual Motion, recently presented at Skokie’s new North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, reveals much of what’s been lost in butoh’s process of going global: its soul.

Butoh emerged in the mid-60s. Its founder, Hijikata Tatsumi, confronted modern Japanese society, with its unparalleled materialism and thoughtless conformity, with the postwar nation’s undeniable still-aching soul. The most compelling and obvious facet of his performances was their inner dignity despite the scars and ravages of the surface: a clear correspondence to much-bombed Japan. This translated into the art of movement as writhing, uncultured innocence, as the performer awakened to a highly personal energy permeating every fiber of the body–the command of the organic. Butoh was shorn of every cultural expectation, of costume; often it was shorn of music and of hair. A brutal form, it opted for freedom, not beauty, using the performing moment and the performance space as a nexus for constant soul-searching transformation expressed in movement. Fiercely original, it was closer to chi-kung, a form of energy channeling like tai chi, or walking Zen than to what Westerners call dance improvisation. But it was an art, presented for deliberate display.

Butoh performers for the most part rejected the very concept of choreography as untrue to the moment. But over time, with butoh’s success, differing degrees of structured movement were employed to handle large groups, to add cues for auditory accompaniment, or simply to expand butoh’s range. The form was always frank to the point of selflessness, however, immediate and enlightening.

Sankai Juku, by far the most popular and successful butoh group in the world, has lived in Paris for ten years, and it shows. I’ve seen Sankai Juku many times in several countries, and each show has moved them closer to the superficial, the choreographic, the dancey–to the West. Is this the only Japan the world can fathom? Paris and the demands of worldwide aesthetic accessibility have effected changes not so much in butoh’s movement as in the way it’s done. Writhing has become undulating, and the grotesque has become merely unusual. What was once searing is now chic. The destabilizing elemental paradox of the ancient yin-yang is now the bland ambiguity of the sexual revolution. The shocking has become the “exotic.” This is not a letdown, it’s heresy.

Sankai Juku’s movement is little but posing, especially in the indulgent solos of Ushio Amagatsu, the group’s leader: unlike earlier butoh performers, he actually looks at the audience. It’s easy to see why Tanaka Min, Japan’s leading solo exponent of true butoh, disavows himself from butoh as it’s evolved in the West. For Sankai Juku and similar groups, butoh’s grasping fingers, open mouths, probing of the air with the head, and disconcerting shifts of weight are just another dance technique, not the physical expression of an inner power groping for a channel. Even the way the dancers run lacks the rootedness of traditional butoh.

Recognizing butoh’s connection with No theater illuminated Sankai Juku’s slide to the slick. Japanese culture is highly paradoxical, but its two main traditional performance forms reveal one essential duality. The ancient No theater is the austere and the spiritual. The Kabuki of the floating world is the spectacular and the overdone. Butoh, in its original and still extant Japanese expression, is much akin to No in that the salient power of the performance is spiritual, and hence universal. No expressed this spirituality in archly stylized forms; butoh did it using no forms at all. But it was the same essence manifested in different epochs, and it was very Japanese.

Sankai Juku is now more Kabuki than No–suddenly it’s about celebrity and glamour, about “look” and surface. It’s melodrama, not spiritual crisis. And like Kabuki, which draws a much larger audience than No, Sankai Juku is more popular than other butoh groups. No actors never acknowledge the audience except through their art; Kabuki actors never relinquish their characters; and real butoh is so raw it’s nothing but being. Rather, it’s nothing itself, something the Japanese express very well. It’s a skill Sankai Juku has either abandoned or lost. How could they betray an aesthetic so sublime and so quintessentially Japanese?

Personality dissolution by aesthetic means is the defining characteristic of great Japanese art. Outer splendor–whether the masks and abstraction of No, the makeup and stylization of Kabuki, or the couching of emotion in reference to nature in Japanese poetry–can never rival inner mystery. Sankai Juku has plenty of outer splendor: the set features 13 beautifully lit Plexiglas disks suspended over the stage. But all I saw were seasoned pros of the international avant-garde circuit on a U.S. tour, and no inner mystery at all.

Those seeing butoh for the first time may have found Yuragi captivating and unique. And many excellent examples of the Japanese aesthetic were present: the deft asymmetry in design, the modular breakdown of space, the variable time flow in sound, the slowness. Even the classical connection to nature was acknowledged by the placement of two live rabbits in two metal bowls atop flagpoles. Yuragi also features a wonderful time warp in the manner of Yukio Mishima: the show begins and ends with Amagatsu holding the flagpole and looking up at the rabbit–it’s as if the entire strange event were nothing but a fleeting moment’s reverie.

Yuragi is a brilliantly designed, extraordinarily well lit globalized show of Japanese culture. My distress is not about globalism in general, or even about other evolved (or devolved) forms of butoh. But butoh in the assimilated version Sankai Juku represents has been diluted and impoverished. I’m reminded of the New York critic who wrote of Martha Graham’s late pieces, which were rather vapid but featured costumes by Halston, “How are we to understand this work? As Graham’s ‘Halston phase’?” Is Sankai Juku butoh’s Ungaro phase?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Delahaye.