Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 29, 2010

A dance of birth and rebirth

Japanese butoh troupe traces the circle of life in Bay Area premiere

by Rebecca Wallace

As artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts, Jenny Bilfield regularly brings to town high-flying artists: top violinist Midori, for instance, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams.

Some days are more down-to-earth. Like when she worked with her technical director recently to choose the right kind of sand.

The Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku is performing at Stanford University on Nov. 9, and its work "Tobari" calls for covering much of the Memorial Auditorium stage in sand. Bilfield and the director weighed (literally) a few possibilities, and ultimately chose a sand that was lighter and that would catch the light nicely.

Now, in an interview, Bilfield laughs. "What do we do the day after with the sand?"

It's all in a day's work, and all part of helping an artist create a specific vision on a local stage. The vision of "Tobari" is that of Ushio Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku in 1975 and is still artistic director, choreographer and designer, as well as a dancer with the company.

Butoh, often translated as "dark soul dance," is an avant-garde dance art form that came into being in Japan after World War II, when the country was struggling with defeat, occupation and westernization, former New York Newsday dance critic Janice Berman wrote in the Lively Arts program notes.

Describing Sankai Juku, Berman wrote: "From the start, it was mysterious and astounding and enigmatic in a new way. It was provocative, angry, stunningly beautiful, cosmically jolly, and sometimes a little goofy. It was dedicated to Amagatsu's own philosophies, and it still is."

Stagecraft and symbolism are main ingredients in Sankai Juku's very stylized art form. The dancers are often costumed to look alike, with shaved heads and pale makeup. All are men. Every move is deliberate, whether rapid or dreamlike.

In the evening-length work "Tobari," which Amagatsu translates as "a border between day and night," the stage holds the sand, a large glossy black oval over which the dancers move, and a starry backdrop. In the piece, subtitled "As if in an inexhaustible flux," eight dancers move through seven movements illustrating cycles of birth and death, and rebirth. Music is by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawathe.

Amagatsu is known for his themes of universality, and here the sand might be seen as the dust we all come from, and all return to. It's also something that each dancer makes his own unique imprint on.

This reflects two main concepts in "Tobari." In a translated interview provided by Lively Arts, Amagatsu said his work delves into the ideas that "our individual life is limited and discontinuous, but life itself has long continuity, and thus I think that we possess both eternity and impermanence within us."

Though "Tobari" is episodic, Amagatsu said he structured the work with no black-outs between the scenes, "because I wanted to unfold this piece with sense of speed and accumulation."

In a YouTube clip of the dancers performing "Tobari," one section has the men walking slowly around the shiny black oval, their arms moving like trees in the wind. They speed up as the drama of the music heightens. In another moment, four dancers lie on the oval, knees slightly raised, the gentle curves of their legs mirroring each other.

This is the Bay Area premiere for "Tobari," a 2008 work that was first seen at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. After the Stanford performance, Sankai Juku is scheduled to bring its work "Hikibi" to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

The troupe tours widely, and Jenny Bilfield has seen it perform several times. The first was about 20 years ago in New York, she recalls.

"I'd never seen dance that was so stark and so slow," she said, noting that the dance has "a ritualistic quality to it."

She added: "It's almost a sculptural dance, and ... you can feel time passing very slowly. It sharpens your perception as a viewer."

Looking at the Lively Arts season as a whole, Bilfield said she thought Sankai Juku would provide an "interesting counterpoint," dance-wise, with the Stanford performance by Rennie Harris Puremovement on Jan. 22. Harris is a Philadelphia hip-hop choreographer and dancer whose work has been described as "explosive."

And, just before Sankai Juku performs on Nov. 9 in Memorial Auditorium, Lively Arts is bringing the Balinese music, theater and dance ensemble Gamelan Cudamani to the same venue on Nov. 7. Instead of the stark lines of butoh dance, the theater will be filled with gold and brocade costumes, bright makeup, and gongs and bells.

What: The Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku performs its evening-length work "Tobari."

Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9

Cost: Tickets are $28-$68 for adults and $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for people under 18, groups and other students.

Info: For more information and details about the Stanford Lively Arts season, go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.

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