Sankai Juku's 'Tobari,' at Seattle's Paramount, is a night-sky odyssey
The butoh troupe Sankai Juku returns to Seattle with "Tobari," a meditation in movement on the night sky.
Seattle Times arts writer
'Tobari: As If in an Inexhaustible Flux'By Sankai Juku, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $20-$75 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).
The scene titles of the new piece by Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku — "From unlimited nothingness," "A shadow in a dream," "Night blue" — are a strong indication of the dance's otherworldly flavor. The show's stage visuals — black voids, star-filled chasms — are an entrancing match to these dance-action captions.
Indeed, "Tobari: As If in an Inexhaustible Flux" finds Sankai Juku founder-choreographer Ushio Amagatsu weighing night-sky experiences and cosmic perspectives as he contemplates "the distance and closeness of time," as he puts it.
Speaking on the phone through an interpreter earlier this month, Amagatsu added he had the border between night and day in mind as he created "Tobari." The dividing line between light and dark, as he sees it, is a mysterious business: "Even though we say 'border,' it's hard to tell when the night is here."
What the night sky does, he suggests, is envelop us in something that has already happened. After all, the light of the stars we see, he points out, originated millions of years ago.
In "Tobari," Amagatsu and his dancers echo the varying speeds at which heavenly bodies travel. In an early scene, some dancers move in slow deliberate measures, while others crisscross the stage briskly, making sharp hand signals as they do so. The effect, even on a slightly blurry press-preview DVD, is akin to watching an illustration of chaos theory played out in dancerly motion.
Amagatsu and Sankai Juku are generally seen as part of butoh tradition, a Japanese school of slow-moving, stylized dance that emerged in the late 1950s. "Butoh's slow movement," Amagatsu says, "always seems very distinct because of its difference from other Western dance."
Still, even with the rapid moves in "Tobari," Amagatsu sees himself as building on the butoh legacy: "I think fast movement is part of butoh in my work."
One striking characteristic of "Tobari" is the instability with which its dancers inhabit its stage space. They cut sharp tangents through it. They hover, swim or drift at an angle to it. Sometimes they struggle, heavily gravity-bound, across its barrens.
Does Japan's seismic instability have an influence on Amagatsu's work? And does he sense any difference, as a dancer, when performing in a seismically active locale versus one that's quiet?
He detects no such difference as he tours from city to city, he says. But he agrees that Japan's seismic restlessness and the sense it conveys of the earth being alive may feed into his work.
"When you feel an earthquake," he says, "it really is like a fetus quickening in its mother's womb ... live movement coming from the core that one can keenly feel."
Sankai Juku's appearance here comes hard on the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in their history. In 1985, on the troupe's first visit to Seattle, one of their dancers, Yoshiyuki Takada, fell to his death in an outdoor aerial performance in Pioneer Square.
The incident, Amagatsu recalls, put Sankai Juku on a yearlong hiatus while he struggled with whether to continue performing. Encouragement from Japanese supporters, including the Takada family, prompted him to revive the troupe.
Now based in Paris and Tokyo, Sankai Juku has been going for 35 years. Amagatsu says he isn't aware of any particular "vibrations" that accompany Sankai Juku's return to the site of its loss. He's more conscious of connection with and encouragement from people who support his artistic endeavors.
"Of course," he adds, "when I come here I always pray for Mr. Takada's soul."
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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