Sankai Juku at Lam Reseatch Theatre, YBCA

14 Oct

October 9-11 Sankai Juku’s austere artistry captivated San Francisco audiences at YBCA’s La Research Theatre. Presented by San Francisco Performances, Saturday evening the audience stood, cheered, clapped vociferously at the 89 minute work titled Umusuna, performed to electronic music. A constant stream of sand dropped from the center flies, forming a mounting heap between two elevated squares as the eight artists appeared in mostly white costumes, bare to the waist, their bodies swabbed in white make up. As they performed, a pair of scale like hangings moved up and down as the action warranted, hung over the back of the two squares.

Like previous productions, Umusuma was conceived, and choreographed and directed by Ushio Amagatsu, founder of the group in 1975 with Semimaru remaining as one of the orignal artists. The other six artists were Sho Takeuchi (1987); Akihito Ichiharu (1997); Ichiro Hasegawa (2004); Dai Matsuoki (2005); Norihito Ishi (2010); Shunsuke Momoiki (2011). The ensemble has been centered in Paris since 1981 with Theatre de la Ville as one of its principal sponsors.

It’s been some time since I’ve seen the company; it seemed this seven-part production emphasized gesture more than many prior ones, gestures as well as stances linking the movement to Indian origins, filtered through centuries of Buddhist practices. For a few moments it seemed the artists, their mouths open in silent wails, reflected indescribable expressions found on the eighth century starving ascetic statues at the Horyuji Temple in Japan. The particularity was astounding, universal.

As with all butoh performances, the pace was deliberate, unlike scherzo tempos one currently sees in ballet and many modern pieces. The expressions also reminded me of Haniwa tomb figures, white make up accenting simple lines, marking the mouth, eyes, accenting expressions of tenderness and terror. Both Ascetic and Haniwa images shared the same century.

More immediately, I couldn’t help thinking of the time and energy expended in applying and removing body paint, such a different form of theatrical artifice to most western theatre. White also accents physical attributes – an elongated right shoulder compared to the left; short arms missing the graceful turn of arm muscles though steady in overall form; head carriage in relation to torso and overall body height, clear indications of ribs and collar bone. Such sensual, visual treats are not the prime message of Umasuma, only components, as the artists moved deliberately from the wings and at various moments rushed decisively across the space, circle, to find a designated location. It was an exceptional treat, a reminder that for the Japanese artist, time is measured only when completing form and concept completely.

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