Review: Sankai Juku in Kinkan Shonen and Toki at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 18 - 22 Nov 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 24 November 2008

Sankai Juku 'Toki' 21-23 Nov, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 21 Nov 08

Imagine yourself hiding in a gloomy crypt, furtively spying on half-a-dozen, hairless monks, painted a translucent white from head to toe, slowly observing their solemn rituals against the backdrop of a semi-circle of large stone tablets, like an indoor Stonehenge. This is the scenario of *Toki* (which means time), the newer of the two works presented at Sadler’s Wells by Sankai Juku, one of Japan’s leading butoh groups.

It opens with three of the performers, facing their stone slabs, head and arms held aloft, slowly undulating in vertical movement, as if pleading or praying to a spirit within or above the plinths. On the floor an apparent tangle of white and yellow rags turns out to be four more men, arranged on their backs with knees tucked firmly into their chests and, as a metallic cord slowly descends from the ceiling, their legs gently unfold like the petals of a flower. Much of what follows happens so imperceptibly that it sometimes passes notice. The stone slabs tilt and return to the perpendicular, a round metal ring and the cord move slowly up and down and the seven male performers drift through many iterations of a dream-like state, their extreme muscular control enabling gentle, ritualistic movement to flow with the power of an incoming tide. Every now and then, dramatic changes of pace act like a shot of adrenalin to the heart, shocking us from this soporiphic slumber.

The flowering imagery occurs elsewhere, especially in a beautiful closing sequence where the seven dancers move as a single organism around the stage, arms flowing like the tentacles of a sea anemone caught in a warm current. In another sequence the seated performers appeared to be fly-catching plants, quickly snatching unseen insects from the air.

Although it would be foolish to underestimate the physical magnificence of these dancers, the slow control of butoh enables performers to carry on as veterans and, in Toki, the founder and director of Sankai Juku, Ushio Amagatsu (now in his 60th year) performs a long, ceremonial solo, creating a spiritual bridge between the first generation of post-war butoh artists and the art form of today’s exponents.

Toki was less diverse and more monotonous than the company’s first major production (*Kinkan Shonen’* which was performed earlier in the week. Both pieces are an uninterrupted 90 minutes, seamlessly moulding together seven discrete episodes, and yet the time in Tokai seems strangely elongated. There is, however, no denying the spell-binding impact of the uniquely beautiful visual magnificence in the work of Sankai Juku.

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