Search This Blog


Friday, October 29, 2010

"Sankai Juku" last Sunday, Oct 24

I had attended Sankai Juku's last performance in Ann Arbor back in 1999, and, ever since then, I had been enthralled by the dance form of butoh, of which Sankai Juku is a proponent. Last Wednesday, I went to attend the film screening at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, in which two films about butoh, both of them dating from the 1960s or 1970s, were screened. (You can see excerpts from one of the two films, Dance of Darkness, online). So, I walked into the Power Center on Sunday with some familiarity with butoh asw well as some expectations about what the performance was going to be like.

My expectations were both confirmed and belied in interesting ways. The performance that I had seen in 1999 had been much less lyrical and much more minimalist -- and, in that sense, with much more in common with butoh's early years of 1960s-1970s. That performance, with its slow writhing gestures and guttural cries that seemed to approximate cries of pain, had put me in mind of what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called "bare life". Christina Mcfee writes about this notion in a powerful passage:

'Bare LIfe' -- A Lyrical and Even Ecstatic Dimension

What is "bare life"?

This question underscores the sheer vulnerability and complete exposure of being.

Bare life deals with that part of our existence from which no measure of security will ever protect us. It is the part of life that is absolutely exposed.

But as in sexuality, absolute exposure is intricately connected with infinite pleasure. There is an apocalyptic and obviously political dimension to bare life (brought out by torture and the concentration camp). There is, however, also a lyrical or even ecstatic dimension to freedom of bare life for new and unexpected possibilities (in human relations as well as in our relationship to nature or, more generally, to the world in which we live).

Butoh as a dance form is, I think, expressive of this "sheer vulnerability and complete exposure of being". Clad in minimal, raglike dresses and with a layer of white chalk-like paint covering their entire bodies, butoh performers tend to look anonymous on stage, with all indications of individuality stripped away: life at its most elemental. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza remarked (in 1677, in his book Ethics) that "we (still) do not know what the human body is capable of, nor the limits of what it can do." Thinking of butoh makes me think of that remark, because the practitioners of butoh, with their slow, mindful movements, and their emphasis on the physicality of the body and the mystery of its existence, seem to be exploring the outer limits of the possibilities of the movement of the human body.

Sankai Juku's performance both reinforced this ethos of butoh and simultaneously went against its grain. Titled "Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away" -- you can view UMS's program booklet about the event here -- this dance performance was uncharacteristically "pretty" (in a conventional sense) than one tends to expect in a butoh performance. (Jann Parry, writing in The Guardian newspaper of the U.K., has called 'Hibiki' "designer Butoh for new-age audiences," accusing it of having "little in common with the Japanese 'dance of darkness' that developed after the Second World War," and stating that "Sankai Juku have become the style queens of the Butoh performance circuit." So,well... is this diatribe justified? Have Sankai Juku really sold out, or sold their soul, in order to become a crowd-pleaser, betraying the uncompromising attitude of butoh as originally formed in the countercultural cauldron of 1960s Japan?

I think that the answer is both yes and no. The Guardian's reviewer does make a good point in pointing out that 'Hibiki' is too prettified, too mainstream. (But then, had Sankai Juku not acquired some degree of mainstream status, would the UMS even have brought it to Ann Arbor? Or afforded to? Organizations like the UMS do have to depend on ticket sales, and hence on audience tastes.) That aside, I do not think that the bareness and minimalism of butoh as it originally arose was necessarily missing from the 'Hibiki' performance. It was still there, with other layers and other influences having been overlaid on it and enmeshed with it. This was very apparent, I thought, in particular in a sequence within the performance in which the four or five performers would crouch very close to the ground, in almost a fetal position, and then abruptly rise up, draw themselves to their full height, and raise both hands upwards as if reaching for the sky, only to lie down again and crouch. Arguably, both the bareness that is elemental to butoh and the almost balletic, conventionally beautiful, lyricism of more conventional dance forms were present in that gesture. The two complemented each other, and together they managed to suggest, I thought, the complexity of man's being in the world: caught between animality and godlikeness, always pulled groundward by gravity but also always aspiring towards the sky in leaping exaltation. Man is, the performance seemed to say, a liminal creature caught forever between a nether world of despairing animality and an outer world of exquisite sublimity that always remains just beyond our grasp.

So too with the vase-like objects up near the proscenium's upper reaches, dripping a blood-red liquid in slow, spaced-out drops at a time, collected in a huge circular bowl around which the performers stood. From one point of view, it could be thought painfully kitschy, and perhaps it was. But it spite of coming in arguably New Age accouterments, it also reminded me of the fierce beauty of a famous passage from Aeschylus' Agamemnon:

And even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despite,
against our will,
comes wisdom to us

(Agamemnon, 179-183)

Perhaps this is all part of what Sankai Juku meant by the phrase "resonance from far away" in the title of the performance: not just elementality but resonance, with all human experience -- which perforce must include not only the strange and the unconventionally beautiful, but also the conventionally beautiful; for that, too, is part of human experience.

No comments: