Umusuna: Memories Before History | Dance of Darkness and Sankai Juku at BAM….
As you walk into the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House you immediately become aware of the stark minimalist design of the stage’s set. There is a narrow walkway between two slightly elevated rectangular platforms. In the background is a thin column of sand that falls continuously from the rafters. The column of sand is framed by two large conical scales, also with thin trickles of sand that falls into an attached tray. These scales are lowered and raised during the performance. As the piece progress the dancers’ movements spread sand over the floor in sections, invoking the elements of fire, water, air, and earth, each delineated by ascribed colors of light.
This is the opening imagery of the legendary Butoh company from Japan, Sankai Juku, and the New York premiere of Ushio Amagatsu’s Umusuna: Memories Before History…umusuna translate to English as the place you were born or more simply earth and birth – umusuna primarily refers to a pin-pointed area, but can also infer a broader, universal, planet-wide perspective…
There is a slight opening in the black background behind the column of falling sand in which Ushio Amagatsu enters and walks slowly to the front of the stage….the column of falling sand represents the passing of time or life in a vertical line. Mr. Amagatsu is bald, bare-chested and wearing all white body paint, his eyes lined with black; he only clothing is a white wrap around his waist. From the moment he enters the stage you are aware of his powerful presence and as he continues towards the front of the stage that power only grows. His moves in a manner that is almost prehistoric, primal in nature, his arms slice through the air, his torso contorts in upon itself, his body language is one of inner pain, of torment. When he gets to the front of the stage, with a slight turn of his head he opens his mouth as if in a silent scream of primordial anguish.
This is Butoh, an art form that developed, some say as a form of protest, after the Second World War. After the Second World War, Japan was a country in transition. Because of Japan’s defeat and subsequent conquest its old world values and traditionalist views were being challenge by the western democratic ideology.
This period was a time of great social unrest in Japan, students protested in the streets and theater groups were presenting pieces that challenged societal norms. Butoh, also known as the Dance of Darkness, was born out of this and was the result of the extreme dissatisfaction found in how Japanese modern dance was developing. These artists sought a new form of expression that would be a reflection of the times, of the anger, the confusion and the trauma leftover from the war. They rejected both the ideas of western modern dance as well as the restraints found in Japanese traditional performing arts. That sought more than just the repetition of ideas that were already being done in the west. So began the drive for a form of expression that was fully Japanese and one that focused more inward thru unconscious improvised movement.
These artists sought to explore inwardly vistas that had previously not been tapped either within themselves or in their environment. Butoh became the expression of something primal, a raw energy, a mirrored image of the cosmic pain and suffering that could be found in the human condition.
Four men inter the stage, they are wearing long red skirts with white corsets, each is bald, bare-chested and also covered in white body paint. In their ears are small balls attached by three inches of cord that swing like pendulums with every move.
They lie on the floor in way that seems to express awareness as it first climbed out of the primordial ooze. There is a stated androgyny to the dancers as if sexual expression is beneath them.
Umusuna: Memories Before History is perhaps one of the most startling works I have experienced. It explores the themes of light, darkness, life, death and primal passions. There is realness to the dreaminess found in this work, a realness that speaks of the struggle within the darkness found within man’s soul.
Now 66 years of age Mr. Amagatsu founded Sankia Juku in 1975 and as an artist his vision has expanded the landscape of both theater and dance. He is of the second generation of Butoh artists, trained by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo who established Butoh as an art in the end of the war.
With Umusuna: Memories Before History, which has its world premiered in France in 2012, this is the first time in almost ten years that Sankai Juku has appeared at Brooklyn Academy of Music.