Among many other fascinating offerings, this autumn’s edition of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted Sankai Juku’s 2012 production of Umusuna, marking this legendary Japanese company’s fifth engagement at the festival. Established in 1975 by Ushio Amagatsu, who has staged all of the company’s production to date, Sankai Juku is largely responsible for affording worldwide exposure to Butoh – a movement-based performance style that emerged in post-World War II Japan.

Sho Takeuchi, Ichiro Hasegawa, Akihito Ichihara and Semimaru Umusuna © Jack Vartoogian
Sho Takeuchi, Ichiro Hasegawa, Akihito Ichihara and Semimaru Umusuna
© Jack Vartoogian

Much like the rest of the company’s oeuvre, Umusuna (translated as birthplace, earth, or birth – depending on the interpretation) negotiates in highly abstract and meticulously sculpted imagery, where both the visual and the physical language are boiled down to their essence. However, the work’s formal rigor – I find – does not impose itself on the viewer; rather, it is likely to induce a mesmerizing, trance-like state, offering a wide array of journeys for each individual audience member to embark on.

Presented in seven sections, the production begins and, essentially, ends with solos performed by Amagatsu himself, and segues into an epilogue performed by the entire company. Appearing behind a thin column of fine sand descending from high above the stage, Amagatsu – now well into his sixties – radiates profound peacefulness. While the falling sand will remain a constant presence until Umusuna’s final moments, the production is propelled forward by a progression of atmospheric shifts punctuated by vivid imagery and evocative soundscapes. Two large glass plates – each containing a smaller sand-filled hourglass – suspended near the rear wall of the theater seem to demarcate the tipping scales of discord and rhyme that alternate for the duration of this work. For instance, following the opening ethereal solo, Umusuna segues into a physically and aurally aggressive section performed by a quartet of stylized furies of sorts. The men – all four Sankai Juku veterans – strapped in canvas corsets and long red dresses, ricochet across the stage in chaotic formations, while still appearing to nearly levitate atop the sand-covered floor. Yet, in the next section, they are replaced by three barely clad youths, who meditatively float on the stage floor in fetal positions.

Norihito Ishii, Shunsuke Momoki, Dai Matsuoka Ichiro and Hasegawa Umusuna © Jack-Vartoogian
Norihito Ishii, Shunsuke Momoki, Dai Matsuoka Ichiro and Hasegawa Umusuna
© Jack-Vartoogian
Over the course of the company’s history, it has been frequently noted that its creations are concerned with universal themes, and while one could certainly key Umusuna’s imagery into an interpretation dealing with a creation myth, I would argue that the intent is much more elusive, and not particularly invested in such finite interpretations. With this work, I find it much more rewarding to engage in deep listening, and find one’s “way in” through subtly drawn details that pop up during the piece: the fine dust trailing off Amagatsu’s body and floating in the air around him, the web-like red lacing that covers the corsets in the “furies” section, the delicate flower-like earpiece adorning the performers’ bald heads in another segment and so forth.

Lastly, I have an observation that simply begs to be made: now in its fourth decade, this company seems to continue discovering ways to transcend its Butoh heritage, and access a way to exist on the stage that feels even more human than before. I find it hugely rewarding.

****1