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Philosophy of movement

A butoh company continues to enthral with its 'dialogue with gravity'.

Publication Date : 15-11-2012


My first experience of the world's most watched butoh company Sankai Juku was in 1996 when I began my studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. That was before the Japan Foundation Bangkok introduced Thai artists and audiences to butoh. I was so mesmerised by their "Yuragi" that I bought a show poster home. Sadly that poster was damaged in last year's floods.

It was 11 years before our paths crossed again, this time at the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2007. An Australian seated next to me said Sankai Juku's "Kagemi" was the most beautiful she'd ever seen on stage though I seem to remember that she slept for a while during the show.

Another five years have passed but I recently had the chance to see the 35-year-old company on stage twice in two months: at its world premiere of "Umusuna" at the Biennale de la danse in Lyon, France in September and in "Tobari: As if in an inexhaustible flux" at the da:ns festival 2012 in Singapore last month. This was the work Sankai Jukiu debuted in 2008 at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris to critical acclaim and sadly the Singaporean audience was far less enthusiastic about it than their French counterparts.

After 16 years and four cities, the Esplanade's corporate communications team made a long-held wish come true and arranged an interview with Ushio Amagatsu, Sankai Juku's founder and artistic director.

Amagatsu tells me through an interpreter that their next new work will follow in two years. He then explains why Sankai Juku has been performing more in Europe, especially in France, than in other parts of the world.

"Jean Mercure, the former artistic director of Theatre de la Ville - a mecca of contemporary dance and theatre in continental Europe - came to watch our work in Lyon in 1981 and co-commissioned our new work the following year," he explains.

"I think his interest resulted from our work being so very different from other dance works in Europe at the time.

"It's not a long-term contract, though - they renew it every two years for our new production. But that has been going on for three decades now."

He notes that even following the retirement of Gerard Violette, the former artistic director of the Theatre de la Ville, four years ago, the new artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota has chosen to maintain the strong relationship with Sankai Juku.

Many critics and scholars, especially in Japan, place Amagatsu in the second generation of butoh players - after the pioneers Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. Others say that his works do not count as butoh.

"I don't really care about that criticism," says Amagatsu. "I was greatly influenced by Hijikata in how he created works. But we are living in different eras and so our expressions are different. I had to search for my own style of butoh, which I would describe as 'a dialogue with gravity'."

The butoh master says that while he draws his inspiration from books and visual arts works, it's more like "an accumulation of experiences not the direct influence by any specific work". And that explains why he, unlike many Japanese artists, is not interested in creating works that are directly related to Fukushima.

"What happened there was indeed tragic but life goes on. You have to live positively and I want to focus on the positive side. Of course, it will be indirectly reflected in my works. For example, my latest work 'Umusuna' shows the relationship between humans and the four basic elements - earth, water, wind and fire."

Amagatsu, who is still performing in his productions but in not as many scenes as before, says that Sankai Juku doesn't intend to increase the number of performers. Every year the company organises a workshop in Toyama prefecture, which is attended by many young dancers. A few interns are then selected to join the group based on their "quality and determination".

"Their concentration is also very important. There is neither mirror nor music in our studio."

And just like many great artists whom I have had privilege to interview and yet have never performed in Thailand, Umagatsu would like to include Bangkok in Sankai Juku's world tour itinerary soon. Just for the record, the company has been to Singapore twice and Kuala Lumpur once.

The writer wishes to thank the Esplanade's corporate communications team for all assistance.


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