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One usually thinks of butoh dance as dark. It often deals with suffering; with soul-rending angst and terror, or perhaps with destruction (nuclear and otherwise) and its ghosts. Certainly, the white body paint and powder coating the dancers head to toe leads one to meditate on the transitory and the changes all humans experience as they ricochet between fate and free will. There is, in butoh, the continual reminder of a world of spirit inside and outside us, with the body as a permeable boundary. We access this otherworld not only with our meditative minds but also with our senses. The membrane between… being and nothingness… is as slight and unsubstantial as a wet tissue, yet this is where the butoh dancer works, guiding us back and forth between the worlds.
Sankai Juku, a butoh company, appeared at Memorial Hall, presented by Carolina Performing Arts, with a distinctly un-dark work. Umusuna, Memories before History, conceived and choreographed by company founder Ushio Amagatsu, glowed with light and was studded with beautiful moments.
While the work could still be described as dance theatre, the piece was far more dancerly than much butoh, with small ensembles moving in graceful unison, and with some piercing solos. The eight-member troupe is all male. In addition to the founder, one other dancer has been performing since the group's inception, while the other six joined in successive decades. This unusual age range in itself inclined the viewer to consider Time, and the setting of Umusuna continually reinforced that preoccupation. From either side of the stage, two large hourglass-type bulbs released their sands in slim streams into large glass bowls. At the beginning, they hung low and even from the rigging, but during the cycle of dance, they rose and were lowered to differing heights, so they appeared to be two sides of a balance scale. Between them, from on high, fell another stream of sand, which eventually built into a small mound upstage.
The unbroken 90-minute piece was divided into seven segments: a prologue; the four elements (the fire section also reads as birth); the build-up and erosion of all things in the cycle of time; and the preparation for rebirth. I found the first and last sections the most powerful. In the first, an older man moves with touching grace through an elegant sequence that seems to say: "We make our marks, but Time blurs and erases them." His arm and hand gestures were achingly beautiful. The four elemental sections, and the penultimate one, were danced by threes or fours, and were hugely augmented by high-value colors in lighting and projections. The full troupe danced the final section, which closed with a powerful image: the dancers were arrayed across the floor on their backs, each drawn up into a fetal position. Like babies, like seed pods, like carapaces ready to split, the contained shapes told of explosive energy barely constrained. Through the 90 minutes of dancing, the dancers' pulsing blood had gradually tinged the skin beneath the white body paint, and clouds of powder had lifted off, so that in the grayed light of that sliver of time-space between the worlds, they glowed pinkly, presaging a return to the fire-red of rebirth, as Time flowed on.