Five years was far too long to wait to see the Japanese butoh troupe Sankai Juku again, but the wait ended this weekend with their performances of Umusuna: Memories Before History. Here are some takeaways.
Watching butoh, for me, is unlike watching any other form of dance. Normally my mind is active, interpreting and questioning and analyzing; but with butoh I simply let the dance wash over me. The performance puts me into a kind of semi-trance state; the processing comes later, for days after the show.
I have to keep correcting my posture during the performance, finding that I mimic the dancers somewhat, lowering my head when they sink to the floor, angling a shoulder to match the twist of their bodies. Apologies to the person sitting behind me. (Also, see above.)
Age is meaningless. The 40-year-old troupe’s founder, Ushio Amagatsu, who is 66, still performs; another dancer, Semimaru, has also been with the company since the beginning.
Age is meaningful. Though the dancers are fit, age reveals itself in the softening of the jaw and waistline. Far from being undesirable, this mingling of elders, middle age, and youth creates a community; it also adds depth to the subtle variations in the movement. Though much of the movement is unison, none of it is identical. Each dancer is an individual, and age makes that more apparent, and somehow more potent.
The variations in structure of the human skull are fascinating. Shaved heads, white-powdered skin, and stage lights reveal these differences and make skull shape a primary identifying feature of the dancers.
Less is more. A gap between two slightly raised platforms becomes a stream when blue light is added.
Slow down and breathe. Much of butoh is done at a creeping pace, with bursts of scurrying or flowing action intervening. Watching butoh is like a reminder to meditate.
A flow of sand from the flies to the floor marked the passage of time—an hourglass of sorts, but one that cannot be reversed. Birth, existence, nothingness.