Butoh lite



Esplanade Theatre/Last Friday

Butoh, the transgressive expressionist dance form that emerged in post-war Japan, evoked the murky hinterlands of damaged souls in its early performances. It has since evolved in myriad ways, one of which is the beloved, dream-like aesthetic of Sankai Juku, a butoh troupe helmed by the indefatigable Ushio Amagatsu.

The legendary 67-year-old is both choreographer and designer and often casts himself in long solos that are measured in pace and immaculately detailed. He opens Meguri, his 2015 creation staged here for the Esplanade's inaugural Japanese Festival of Arts, moving with rapt intentness towards a clear, convex plate suspended above the stage. 

Although Sankai Juku has amassed a large global following, it is arguable that audiences are more taken by its sleekly packaged works than with the choreography itself, which is rife with the physical tropes of gaping mouths, limbs floating away from foetal positions and clawed hands on the ends of outstretched arms.

Meguri boasts a stunning textured wall inspired by fossilised crinoids, towering over a sand- dusted stage with raised platforms on three sides. The dancers, characteristically covered in white powder, move in profile as though pressed up against it.

Returning to the most primal of human movements, the choreography consists largely of walking and crawling as the alabaster dancers weave in and out of unison.

The butoh seen here is decidedly less grim than its ancestry, seeming to be its anaesthesised cousin. While the form retains some of its signature mystical slowness, it seems devoid of the connectivity between body and soul, resulting in what appears more like modern dance.

This is largely due to the music, composed by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa, which ranges from quiet Oriental strings and ambient beats to epic orchestrations, much like a film score.

Not only does Meguri sound grandiloquent, but its choreography, in adhering to the rhythm and dynamic quality of the music, also does not seem to be in the vein of the inwardly driven, body-centred discipline that is butoh.

The piece's seven scenes variously depict different aspects of nature, as the lighting bathes the relic wall in hues of green, blue and red. The dancers ride the ebb and flow of the elements, depicting the cyclical patterns of nature in each rise and fall.

They are almost alien in their caution as they glacially lower themselves as though to dip their hands in water, their limbs making jaunty angles in the process. Sending up whiffs of white powder as they spin in a crouched position, the dancers seem to be flicking the dust of the bodies back to the earth.

While there is no denying the skill and discipline of the ensemble and the compelling gravitas of its leader, Sankai Juku hides Meguri's inherent emotions about the themes of life, death and regeneration behind its glossy veneer and sterile attitudinising. This is butoh lite, a far cry from the unhinged peculiarities of the work of the dance form's founders. The bizarre is replaced by the beautiful, the raw by the refined, and emotion by an aloof enigma.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Butoh lite'. Print Edition | Subscribe