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Founder and choreographer of world-renowned butoh troupe Sankai Juku, Ushio Amagatsu’s works explore universal themes such as creation, existence, death, rebirth, metamorphosis and transcendence, drawing on elements of Buddhism and Japanese mysticism. Butoh, built in its early years on grotesque imagery, has been reinterpreted by Amagatsu into a graceful, meditative form, an approach he describes as a “dialogue with gravity”.
Born in Yokosuka four years after World War II, Amagatsu trained in theatre, scenography and classical and modern dance before his first encounter with butoh. He co-founded butoh company Dairakudakan with two others in 1972, but left to establish Sankai Juku in 1975.
Kinkan Shonen (The Kumquat Seed; 1978), one of his earlier works for Sankai Juku, was a piece about metamorphosis and involved a live peacock as well as hundreds of tuna tails nailed to the backdrop. It also cemented their place on the international stage. In 1980, the troupe toured Europe for the first time, performing at the Nancy International Festival and the Avignon Festival in France, where they were approached to produce works for the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. Since then, they’ve spent as much time abroad as they have in Japan, premiering works in two-year cycles at Théâtre de la Ville while touring the rest of the world.
Introduced in the 1960s during a time of social change, political unrest and urbanisation, butoh is a Japanese art form that emerged from a desire to break away from both Japanese classical and western modern dance forms. Avant-garde collaborators and early pioneers of butoh Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata1 wanted to commune with nature through dance and let the body “speak” for itself—and in doing so, externalise one’s primal instincts.
In their earliest performances, Hijikata shaved his head2 while Ohno caked himself in thick white powder that recalled the image of nuclear fallout victims, a stark reminder of the terrifying aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their use of grotesque imagery, crude gestures and mime articulated a sense of alienation, loss of identity and the disenfranchised body. These early expressions of butoh can also be linked to the idea of the grotesque3 put forth by Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in 1941.
According to Bakhtin, beyond its use as an adjective for the strange and mysterious, the ugly and disgusting, the grotesque in art functions beyond aesthetic value. The grotesque body to him is raw, open, primal and unfinished, just as the classical body is refined, artificial and rigid; it is transgressive and aims to bring elevated phenomena “down to earth”—to the material, corporeal or sensuous level4. It therefore not only celebrates the cycle of life, but also reflects the human condition and the deep-seated anxieties of society.
Etymologically, the Japanese character bu refers to dance while toh refers to the act of stomping, which takes reference from agrarian practices. Put together, the word loosely translates to “earth dance”, signalling an intimacy with the ground and a primordial quality that “captures the natural movements of the common folk”5.
Bizarre and controversial at first, Hijikata’s shaved head and Ohno’s whitewashed body were symbolic of stripping away one’s identity, and were adopted by subsequent butoh performers, who would undergo this ritual of “purifying” themselves. This act of detachment and entering a state of nothingness is one of the trademarks of butoh, suggestive of Zen Buddhism.
Similar to contemporary dance, butoh defies definition because it has no fixed vocabulary.
When Amagatsu first encountered it in the ’60s, he was instantly enamoured by the way performers used their bodies so differently compared to ballet and other dance forms, and by its peculiar approach. He was, in his words, sucked into its “whirlpool of creative energy”6.
In 1972, he and two other artists, Akaji Maro and Isamu Osuga, co-founded Dairakudakan, one of the first few companies to join the butoh movement. Like Ohno and Hijikata, Amagatsu wanted to pursue his own interpretation of the dance, one that integrates the essence of the form with his own experiences and creative vision. He left the company three years later to establish Sankai Juku.
Sankai Juku, which means “studio by the mountain and the sea”, implies tranquillity and calm, which are characteristic of their work—and perhaps Amagatsu’s way of distinguishing his style from the others.
If early butoh employed grotesque imagery to jolt the senses, the choreographer elevates these aberrations (the distorted and deformed bodies and facial expressions) to a more metaphysical, surreal and poetic plane with his aesthetics.
Members of Sankai Juku have been likened to Buddhist monks (People; Montreal Gazette), and their works are described as “the dance equivalent of haikus” (The Guardian), psyche-penetrating” (Seattle Times) and “otherworldly” (Wall Street Journal).
How the all-male troupe came to be was purely by chance. Amagatsu started out with a year-long workshop focusing on basic training that initially had 30 members comprising men and women.
What was left of the group after that year became the core members of the company. Although gender is a non-issue within the framework of his creative vision, Sankai Juku has remained an all-male troupe ever since.
One of his innovations with Sankai Juku is the standardisation of the butoh repertoire8, which means that each piece can be repeated, unlike early butoh performances which were largely improvised and relied on the spontaneous responses of the dancer’s body. The choreographer attributes this to his collaborations with Théâtre de la Ville, which has supported the company since the 1980s.
In a conversation with theatre practitioner Edith Podesta, Amagatsu talked about dance in relation to the word “tension”, which to him is the basis of physical expression. He explains, “When [I] think about western dance, I think about it as a revolution against gravity. It has its own beauty, of course, but when I think of my own work, I try to accept gravity… I think about the relationship between the body and gravity. Like when we lie down, even if we were to raise our necks a little bit, we feel its pull… I am always conscious of this relationship.9”
Training sessions typically begin with simple exercises, such as standing on one leg, to establish the dancer’s awareness of the relationship between the body and gravity. There are no mirrors to be found and no music is played. Consciousness precedes form, and dancers are encouraged to feel and react to their emotions. This process of understanding the state of one’s body and connecting with one’s feelings manifests externally in movement, which is meditative and liberating at once.
Apart from his training regime, the meticulous choreographer, who designs and involves himself in every stage of the production process, also has his troupe backstage for a full hands-on experience: from the making of sets, to the creation of props and costumes. By doing so, dancers can have a deeper understanding of how they would be interacting with their props and sets.
Some of butoh’s primary themes are existence, death, transcendence, metamorphosis and rebirth, and these are also present in the works of Amagatsu, which often evoke a sense of spirituality and otherworldliness.
The choreographer notes that they are universal in the human experience—in the way they are explored in the myths and legends of the world, and how they resonate with people. It is also one of the many reasons why his works are so well-received all over the world.
“At the very core, we all have something in common: a sense of universality… When I travel to different countries to perform, I know that we all share this commonality, and I know that it allows my work to be communicated to different people10,” he says.
Amagatsu creates his own myths and mystical experiences through his works, which set his dialogue with gravity against sprawling backdrops and specially composed scores. Audiences are transported into different worlds and states of consciousness as time stands still or stretches infinitely in these stunning dioramas of his. In Tobari: as if in an inexhaustible flux (2008), dancers navigate the cosmos of life against a galaxy of stars, meditating on the meaning of existence. In Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphor of Mirrors (2000), they perform under a huge canopy of lotus leaves, reflecting on life and identity.
Whether it is the meditative choreographies he creates, or the mesmerising stage sets he designs from scratch, these elements are delicately woven together into visual poems that reveal a consummate storyteller and philosopher at work.
1 The pair met sometime between 1952 and 1954 through Mitsuko Ando’s dance company. Ohno would become Hijikata’s muse and would perform in many of his works. The two were lifelong collaborators, even though they pursued different approaches to butoh.
2 Kinjinki (Forbidden Colours; 1959), based on Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name, performed with Ohno’s son, Yoshito. The highly controversial performance, which involved a chicken getting squeezed between the thighs, got him expelled from the Japan Dance Association.
3 Bahktin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World (1941)
4 Robinson, Andrew. In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power (2011), published on Ceasefiremagazine
5 Richie, Donald. 1986. Personal interview with Tatsumi Hijikata. 2 December.
6 Interview with Ushio Amagatsu (2006), by Kyoko Yoshida for Walkerart.org
7 Conversation with Ushio Amagatsu (2014), by Edith Podesta for Esplanade – Theatre on the Bay’s Conversasians
8Johnson, Brett. Sankai Juku: Butoh Dance from Japan in The Journal of the International Institute, Vol 4, Issue 2 (1997)
9Conversation with Ushio Amagatsu (2014), by Edith Podesta for Esplanade’s Conversasians