Sankai Juku

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birth, body, borderline experience, death, existence, transformation, transgression, transition
Performing Arts (dance / butoh)
Asia, Eastern
created on:
May 13, 2009
last changed on:
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Sankai Juku
Sankai Juku. Courtesy the artist


As Disturbing as it is Meditative

Like phantasms, white powdered dancers with shaved heads slowly unfurl their bodies on a disk. Their slow trancelike movements and expressionless features mesmerize the audience. They point at each other, laugh like Venetian masks, unfurl. At the same time, they point skyward as if making a religious gesture. Those willing to acquiesce to the hypnotic effects of the dance find themselves slipping into a space located somewhere between the underworld and the world of the living. Since its European debut in 1980, Sankai Juku’s butoh spectacles remind us of its original name, “Ankoku Butoh,” or “dance of darkness,” a name richly suggestive of dark rites and rituals. But the dancer’s movements are even more disturbing than that, for rituals at least serve an earthly purpose. Sankai Jukus’ dancers perform in an empty room, they exude an eerie detachment. They laugh about nothing, point to no God. "I´m interested in the moment before and after a movement, tension and relaxation," said Ushio Amagatsu, the company’s founding father, dancer and choreographer.
Apart from being born in Yokosuka, a city on the Bay of Tokyo, little is known about Ushio Amagatsu’s background. The slender 60-year-old man studied ballet and modern dance before he translated his skills into butoh, a form that drew him into its “whirlpool of creative energy”. In 1972, he co-founded the dance company Dairakudakan with Akaji Maro and Isamu Osuga. He felt the company grew too large, and wanted to distance himself from what he considered a surfeit of expressive possibilities and instead focus on what could be achieved by “reducing.” After three years, he separated from Dairakudakan and founded his own company Sankai Juku, “studio by the mountain and the sea.” He chose his first three dancers from a 30-man workshop. He describes his all-male troupe as the second generation of butoh dancers. According to Amagatsu, butoh is a "dialogue with gravity." He sees himself in the same tradition as the founders of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ono, but sets great value on finding his own style.

In 1980, Sankai Juku toured Europe for the first time, and performed at the Nancy International Festival and the Avignon Festival. The French welcomed the company enthusiastically and engaged them for the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, where they have been premiering their work in two year cycles, since 1982. In 1984, after spending four years in Europe, they flew across the Atlantic and celebrated their North American debut at the Toronto International Festival.

As early as 1979, Sankai Juku’s signature work “Sholiba” shows them at their most spectacular and bizarre: the white powdered, nearly naked performers hang upside down from house façades. Their hands are shaped like blood red claws. They create the illusion of bats, slowly lowering themselves to the ground, lapsing into an embryo-like position, and then gravitating together into an animal-like mass. During a performance in Seattle, Washington in 1985, one of the original members of the troupe, Yoshiuki Takada died tragically when a supporting rope gave way and he plunged to his death. Sankai Juku nonetheless has kept the work in its repertoire. In 2008, some thirty years after the first performance of this style, the motif reappears in "Shonen Kinkan", where the master himself hangs upside down in front of an azure blue background.

"Kinkan Shonen," subtitled "a young boy´s dream of the origins of life and death ", is all about metamorphoses. The dancers oscillate between the civilized and animalistic, cosmic and earthly. The boy, played by Amagatsu, appears on stage in a sand-colored uniform, sirens begin to howl, tension translates into restless agitation, then he surrenders to a desperate rigidity. A queue of dancers in paper mâché masks and long plant-like skirts execute an impenetrable, nightmarish ritual of empty gestures. Between the dancers: a peacock - possibly an allusion to "Kinjiki" by Tatsumi Hijikata, the first butoh piece ever, which debuted in 1959 with a chicken, and was banned from Japanese stages because of its taboo content.

Much has changed since then. Butoh is established and is the pride of Japan. Sankai Juku has performed on the major stages in the country and has a devoted following. After they debut their work in France, the company regularly goes on tour to Tokyo. According to their homepage, they have performed in 43 countries and 700 cities. "Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Beijing Opera, Sankai Juku. You don’t need LSD," writes a blogger. You also can read about people getting up and leaving during the performance, or digging out their cell phones. Amagatsu’s butoh, the mystery of life and the act of meditating about the moment before or after a movement, is not for the faint of heart.
Author: Heike Gatzmaga


Ushio Amagatsu was born in Yokosuka City, Japan. In 1972 he co-founded Dairakudakan with Akaji Maro and Isamu Osuga. In 1975 he founded Sankai Juku.



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This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.


Resistance of the Object

(11 June 09 - 21 June 09)


Homepage of Sankai Juku