Sankai Juku gives dancers an opportunity to explore butoh.

Sankai Juku in Umusuna: Memories Before History

Sand gently cascades down, covering a stage where dancers with shaved heads and talc-covered skin move with a calm, hypnotic intensity. They move as if they themselves are grains of sand that emerge from the set to create a moving mosaic before sinking back to the floor. At times they reach out—in painful discomfort or inquisitive searching. This is a scene from a butoh performance—an avant-garde Japanese form filled with slow-motion illusions.

This month, as part of its engagement at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the internationally known butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku offers a three-hour master class, What Makes a Body Move.

Semimaru, a founding member of the company and dancer for 37 years, teaches the class, open to dancers of all ages and experiences. “I believe that this sense of feeling inside and outside is essential to any butoh exercise,” he says. “It is to have a third-party point of view toward your own body, toward people around you and the air around you.”

Dancers can expect to collaborate with each other during the master class. “In the most basic exercise, the participants work in pairs; you help your partner move and then observe their movement. When you yourself move, you feel and observe your own movement,” Semimaru says. “In another exercise I ask several participants to walk together at the same speed—they walk together not only by sight; you try to feel your own senses and others’, as well.”

Imagery will also play an important role to help dancers, whether new to butoh or experienced in the form, find a way to connect to it. “The image I may suggest is that you have a ball in your body or that your body is filled with water,” Semimaru explains. “So, when you move, it also moves. And, you may also need to feel the existence of air around you.” 

Sankai Juku founder Ushio Amagatsu considers himself part of Japan’s second-generation of butoh dancers. The form was developed by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the 1960s in post–World War II Japan and passed along to their students, such as Amagatsu, who founded his company in 1975 and has performed in more than 700 cities worldwide.

The master class is co-presented by BAM and Mark Morris Dance Group and takes place October 30 at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Sankai Juku performs Umusuna: Memories Before History at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, October 28–31. DT

For more: bam.org

Emily Macel Theys writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.

Photo courtesy of BAM

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