Seven Japanese men, heads shaved and bodies powdered white, shudder and writhe beneath a blanket of white lotus flowers. This scene—the opening section of Sankai Juku's Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors—is a far cry from that of a young boy smothering a chicken between his thighs. Yet both come from the same bewitching art form, born in post-occupation Japan. Kagemi choreographer Ushio Amagatsu has proclaimed that "Creating unerasable impressions is our business"—a poetic that audiences will be able to weigh for themselves when Juku's dance theater work comes to the Northrop Auditorium this Friday.
Founded by Amagatsu in 1975, Sankai Juku is Japan's chief ambassador to the West of the often mystifying dance form known as Butoh. Loosely translated as "Dance of the Dark Soul," Butoh evolved in the 1960s as a subversive reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Westernization of Japan.
For starters, its founder, Tatsumi Hijikata, resigned from the All-Japan Dance Association over his 1959 work Forbidden Colors, which was based on the novel by Yusio Mashima. In the spirit of outrageous protest and primal expression that early Butoh embodied, the work addressed homosexuality and incorporated the chicken-choking mentioned above. Subsequent Butoh performances proffered such grotesque and violent images as a man being consumed by thousands of (imaginary) bugs, and contorted bodies parading their distended genitals while cavorting in post-apocalyptic landscapes.
"I was born in 1949 and come from a different generation than the founders; I live in a different time and era," says Amagatsu, speaking from Tokyo through a translator. "I went to Europe in the 1980s and realized I had to create my own Butoh."
Although Amagatsu's work has been influenced by Western dance forms, including ballet and modern dance, his technique and methods remain essentially Butohnian. His performers focus on movement as internal sensation rather than external, physical structure. "I want to refuse to change form from the outside," explains Amagatsu, somewhat cryptically.
"Our dance is not just slow motion," he elaborates. "We have to establish awareness of pursuing the inner self through a quiet, painstaking process."
Indeed, Butoh's deliberate, ritualized movement often seems excruciatingly slow to Western audiences. But it demands extraordinary strength, flexibility, and control—and sometimes the boldness of a stunt man. In an outdoor performance of Amagatsu's 1985 work Jomon Sho, for instance, four men descended headfirst from Seattle's Mutual Life Building in an image of birth. One rope snapped, and a dancer plunged to his death.
Accidents and ironic confluences aside, Amagatsu is one of the second-generation Butoh artists credited with freeing the form from its rep as violent and pathological theater. He has infused it with dazzling spectacle, transporting the work from the realm of politics and mayhem to that of meditative energy and exquisite stagecraft. Yet for all its placid images of white satin robes and flower petals bathed in ravishing sunset-orange light, it also presents performers squatting like crazed chimps, gesticulating madly, or smearing themselves with blood and ashes.
With so much visual tumult, audiences may wonder what all this has to do with the "mirrors" of the title. Like the philosophical koans so dear to the Butoh heart, the answer is as oblique as a fun-house reflection. "Western people think of 'mirror' as related to narcissism," says Amagatsu. "But watching one's reflection on water, the body is horizontal and relaxed, not vertical and full of tension. The image is fragile—it may change or disappear, and it depends on the imagination of the person looking into it."
The Butoh body is considered a kind of blank slate that, when properly aligned with nature, can channel primal experience. But while Amagatsu's looking glass may reveal universal truths, he is adamant that it does not reflect current events. "Kagemi is not concerned with contemporary Japanese society or politics," he insists. "There are myths and metaphors of mirrors in all cultures, and Kagemi is my virtual world on the other side of the mirror."