Sankai Juku

Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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The shock of the unexpected. This is what viewers have come to expect from Sankai Juku – formidable tensions and dynamics juxtaposed to minimal and primordial movement. Untamed and uncontrollable contrasts, like a peacock roaming freely across the stage (“Kinkan Shonen” (The Kumquat Seed) – 1978) or sand pouring down from the sky (“Umusuna: Memories Before History”- 2012) have always served as an ominous backdrop to their ghostly choreography. Unprecedented forces and theatrical variables, along with dramatic lighting and often edgy music give each of their works its unique signature. Such elements are essential for Sankai Juku mythic performances since its choreography is brilliantly and skillfully distilled to a small range of movement, a rich and primal vocabulary that works best when supported by absolutely nothing, allowing movement for movement sake or with heavy contrasts that makes the work enduring and impressionable. Otherwise, their Butoh style of dancing becomes as  formulaic as ballet – once the very method that Butoh Dance rebelled against. One could argue that repetition and variations on a theme are justified with “Meguri” because it gets its name from a Chinese character, the verb “meguru; which refers to circulating water and all things that rotate. Still, I don’t believe this is a strong enough argument in favor of its seven lengthy leaden segments.

This is not to say that “Meguri” doesn’t have much in common with its predecessors or much of Sankai Juku’s signature works. From the moment dim stage lights go up on “The Call from the Distance” through its finale, “Return”, there is an instantaneous, hypnotic and meditative atmosphere that saturates the stage with an otherworldly timelessness. Each segment has the promise of something big, a potential to telescope into something epic but quickly dissolves into “there is no there.” The music (Takashi kako, Yas-Kaz, and Yoichiro Yoshikawa), that ranges from innocuous spa muzak to electronic soundscape or forbidding strings, efforts to push the piece forward but often weighs heavily upon the chalk-covered fingers pointing to the sky or the silent scream of mouths wide open. Iconic gestures and archetypal tableaux give way too quickly to the mundane, as lighting changes hardly distinguish the different segments. A notable exception are the slivers of colored light crossing the upstage wall, a background depicting fossils of Paleozoic marine creatures. At one point this walI moves a few inches side to side without impact making it questionable whether it was intended to sway or accidentally moved.

In the final segment,  “‘Return,”   choreographic elements and groupings from earlier segments reappear into one cohesive piece. Everything feeIs washed by the same mesmerizing brushstroke, the music soft, the dream intact and breathtaking. And then there is the curtain call, which only Sankai Juku can get away with,  as tightly and skillfully controlled as everything that came before, with the company of eight in a straight line, bending one knee and bowing in slow­ motion unison three times. It just took a lot of circulating patterns to get here.

David E Moreno

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