Sankai Juku bring the esoteric dance of butoh to The Granada

Butoh, the post-war Japanese dance style that celebrates slow, methodical movement, rarely comes to Santa Barbara, and so the crowds that turned out for Sankai Juku’s appearance at The Granada Thursday night seemed larger than usual for such an esoteric experience. For those who stuck with it, the all-male company’s work, “Tobari — As if in an Inexhaustible Flux” paid off in surprising ways.

A life cycle in a way, the seven acts of the work took us through nothingness, creation, life, death and back into nothingness. As the program explained, “Tobari” is a Japanese word meaning veil, physically and metaphorically, a veil between day and night, or life and death. But it also described the backdrop, a simple but absolutely mesmerizing wall of stars in an inky blackness. Stared at long enough — and butoh encourages and requires lots of staring — the stars did seem to twinkle and move.

Sankai Juku reminds us of Western dance ideals through its simple omission of inversion. Dancers do not defy gravity. There was no contact between dancers in “Tobari,” although dancers are often joined by a unity of movement. Sometimes that unified movement is flipped or mirrored between dancers. Western dance favors fast action with pauses in-between. Sensei Ushio Amagatsu’s choreography favors slowness, so that when sudden, fast movement arrives, it shocks and startles, like a creature alighting quickly through a forest.

Though the theme of birth, death and rebirth framed the entire 80-minute work, breaking down the individual sections and their movements into understandable meaning taxes the interpretive areas of the brain. Were these human movements or impressions of other organic matter? Animal, vegetable or elemental? If one accepted the from-nothing-back-to-nothing theme as Buddhist in nature, then the answer would be all three, from dust to dust.

The evening began with the appearance of three main dancers in milky orange robes, revealed to us one by one. Each movement was measured and controlled until a sudden shift would leave a small cloud of white powder hovering for a moment in the air. The powdery make-up, bald head, and dark black hole of the mouth are mainstays in butoh, but these little clouds added a little unintentional thrill, like the ghost of action.

After these three, a chilly, atonal grind announced an oncoming storm or a dangerous birth. The full company appeared, fleet of foot, and moving toward and away from each other in a series of meticulously timed intersections.

Throughout the night, this talent of Sankai Juku amazed with consistency. With no rhythmic music to time themselves and no obvious sight cues, the dancers moved in unison as if by telepathy.

Four dancers surrounded a main dancer like petals on a flower, slowly spinning and writhing, while the center dancer raised and lowered himself, at once alive and dying at the same time. Moving in half steps, the group made its way from one side of the stage to the other.

For some in the audience used to fast-paced dance, this was too much (or not enough), and there were about a dozen walkouts. (I noticed one reviewer leaving halfway through). For those who stayed, the effect was mesmerizing, like watching clouds.

It also reminded one of meditation, where one attempts to follow something as simple as breathing. Watching the dancers, one got caught up in the esoteric hand shapes, the enigma of body and arm gesture, the slow-motion even when a body was heading toward the ground (how was that possible?). And then suddenly one would notice the mind had gone elsewhere, usually to the backdrop and its galaxy of lights. And the dancers had suddenly moved a great distance, even when they looked to be still.

There was variation upon variation. Four dancers, looking female in their long, deep blue, almost Chinese dress coats, looked like astronomers of explorers, pointing up toward the heavens or down toward the earth, measuring distances or striding around in half circles.

Sensei Amagatsu, at 61, performed a solo against a vertical strip of stars, which glowed red at the top. All struggle and silent agony, this solo was the most concerned with mortality out of the seven works, yet Mr. Amagatsu’s body still looks wiry and made of iron.

The evening was never less than hypnotic, and ended with the entire troupe slowly advance toward the starry backdrop. One half-expected them to disappear into it, as the metaphor of dissolving into the universe became clear by the end.

I would have liked to hear a bit more discord in the soundtrack, by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. When those dark tones appeared earlier it sent chills up the spine, a perfect companion to the alien world of the butoh dancer. But Amagatsu and company have a soft spot for more romantic, guitar and string-based sounds. It didn’t stop the evening from being as powerful and overwhelming as a thundercloud.

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