A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Paris-based Sankai Juku / Photo by Laurent Philippe

Our lives are regulated in accordance to a linear timeline, accelerating forward with an impending urgency that feels unrelenting and often unstoppable. With so many notifications and social media’s incessant demand for our attention, it’s rather challenging to be fully immersed in the experience — to enter a hypnotic state where the pressures of time no longer exist. Witnessing an experimental performance by the dance troupe Sankai Juko is a journey away from our modern world and towards a state of mysticism. Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA brought Sankai Juko and this experience to LA for two evenings, Oct. 16 and 17.

Ushio Amagatsu, the founder of this Butoh-style dance form, creates a surreal atmosphere that drifts between themes of polar extremes. Light and darkness, personal and public, peace and destruction, all come out to play.

Butoh, which translates to “dance of darkness,” was the response to Hiroshima in which the Japanese land was left in ashes. Influenced by the aftermath of war and the stylings of kabuki theatre, there is a playful dialogue between an impulsive need and an act of control.

For the CAP UCLA show, “Umusuna – Memories Before History,” the stage features a non-stop stream of falling sand that is regulated like a tipped hourglass and two massive chrome pendulums that shift up and down throughout the show. Although the production design seems to replicate the countdown of a clock, the dancers pay no heed as they disrupt the flow of sand and their white powdered bodies leave a lingering trail of dust in the air.

Stark white and colored lights create an ethereal mist, lending a cool ambiance of an Olafur Eliasson installation. Male dancers with shaven heads wear matching costumes, which calls to mind an early capsule from the avant garde visionary Yohji Yamamoto. Choreography vacillates between stillness and commotion and is in cadence with a score that mixes natural and synthetic sounds. Piano sets the tone for a fetal position, while a clash of lightning gives way to a proud warrior posture.

Unlike other modern dance styles that mimic a feverish pacing and resemble seizure-like moves, the Butoh style asks the viewer to sink into the catharsis of slow and subtle gestures. There are elements of spectacle — performers attempt to scream their woes and exhaust themselves into submission — but the trick is to see what’s beyond the obvious. Look closely: the freeze of a statuesque posture holds a transformative power, like decades of hard-won wisdom.

Finding unity in their synchronicity, this dancing tribe may appear like clones but remind us we are not alone in this world.

—Natalie Kessel, Culture Spot LA

For upcoming events at CAP UCLA, visit https://cap.ucla.edu.

Natalie Kessel was raised in Texas as a tennis prodigy and eventually traded her racquet for a video camera after discovering Spike Jonze’s music videos. Attending art school in San Francisco, she lived between coasts until deciding to settle in LA for the platform-friendly weather. Her LinkedIn title labels her as a writer and filmmaker, but she is also a dancer, tarot card reader and karaoke queen.