Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Terrible beauty descends with 'butoh'

Sankai Juku dance company brings its award-winning show to the National Theater this weekend

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The dance style known as butoh emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a highly original and local Japanese form. Very quickly, however, it became known, talked about and rhapsodized over in cities and artistic centers from one end of the planet to the other. Indeed so many articles have now been written about that it is probably all but impossible to say anything new on the subject.

What did these shaved, unsmiling, caterpillar-like figures -- covered from head to toe in white body paint and moving frequently in silence -- represent? People called it post-Hiroshima, post-humanistic and (rather often) post-human dance. It was mesmeric to watch once you slowed down your bio-rhythms, but its silences and its general sense of a pre-verbal mute numbness gave rise to excited chatter that, though it has inevitably lessened, was full of a puzzled, awed expectation.

Founded in 1975 by its present director Ushio Amagatsu, Sankai Juku is, strictly speaking, second-generation butoh. The company has, nonetheless, established a worldwide following and has worked with highly prestigious artists such as composer Philip Glass. It claims to have performed over the last 30 years in 700 cities in 40 countries and has an especially strong association with Paris where many of its shows have premiered at the Theatre de la Ville. The company was last in Taipei in 1996 and before that in 1994.

This time it's bringing a show called Hibiki: Resonance of Far Away (山海塾). It's not new -- it won the UK's Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2002. But because butoh is in essence timeless, and as a style has probably itself not changed significantly in 40 years, that doesn't really matter.

A concise and accurate encapsulation of the nature of butoh is to see it as an attempt to recapture the shamanistic origins of the Japanese performing arts and rearticulate them as modern art. As a single-sentence definition this can hardly be bettered.

Japanese theater appears to have begun as an invitation to the gods to descend into the temple at festival time. Balinese dance to this day has exactly the same function, and Greek tragedy, too, began as ritual dance for the benefit of the god in the temples of Dionysus. The above explanation therefore appears beyond dispute. Far more extravagant descriptions and attempts at interpretation have flourished, nonetheless.

Butoh saw the return to the modern Japanese stage of the demons, ghosts and gods that had been banished by a Western socially-based, rational theater deriving from Henrik Ibsen. "To make gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead re-enact once more their deaths in their entirety -- these are what I want to experience within me." So wrote Hijikata Tatsumi, one of the style's pioneering choreographers.

It is a dance-form of terrible beauty: mysterious, simultaneously erotic and impersonal. Harmony alternates with rupture, slow-motion with violence. Figures resembling white maggots slowly writhe, then are suddenly and inexplicably stimulated to a vigorous squirming movement.

The appeal is essentially hypnotic and sub-rational. Japanese art has at all historical periods been rated as strange, remote and exotic by outsiders, but when it first appeared butoh dance was considered stranger by far than anything that had gone before. It could indeed be seen, as Hijikata had said, as bodies called forth from the morgue to re-enact their demise.

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