Inspired by images in the mind's eye

Sankai Juku dancers have shaved heads and are dusted in white to erase superficial differences and bring out a deeper essence.
Sankai Juku dancers have shaved heads and are dusted in white to erase superficial differences and bring out a deeper essence.PHOTO: SANKAI JUKU

Butoh troupe Sankai Juku returns with Meguri, a work inspired by images of fossils and the cyclical nature of the sea

Other dance forms are movements to expand energy towards the outside, says Japanese dancer and choreographer Ushio Amagatsu.

"On the contrary, butoh for me is something self-reflecting, accompanied with tranquillity."

The 67-year-old founder of butoh troupe Sankai Juku is possibly the best-known exponent of the post-World War II dance form on the international stage.

This month, he and seven other dancers from the troupe present their newest creation for the first time in South-East Asia for the Super Japan festival programmed by the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay.

Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land is co-produced by the Esplanade, Japan's Kitakyushu Performing Arts Centre and Theatre de la Ville in Paris, France, where Amagatsu has premiered a new work every two years since 1982.

His aesthetic of glacially slow movements and striking visuals may tax the attention of audiences used to ballet jetes and bounds, but has enough supporters that Sankai Juku has performed in more than 700 cities and 45 countries and won several awards.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: May 20 and 21, 8pm

    TICKETS: $28, $48 and $78 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

Amagatsu says in an e-mail interview that, like most of his creations, Meguri was inspired by visuals in his mind's eye. While reading a book of biohistory, he was intrigued by descriptions of Crinoids, flower-like marine animals that the Japanese dancer knows as "sea lilies", and which feature in the set design of his new work.

Crinoids, related to sea stars, were abundant during the Paleozoic period and still live in the deep ocean. With changes in the environment or movements of the earth's crust, fossils of these animals appear on land over time.

Amagatsu says: "These fossils imply silently the fact that they were alive. This is what the subtitle Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land means." The title, Meguri, means "return" and emphasises the dance's theme of circulation and rotation.

"As I was born and grew up by the sea, I am always interested in descriptions about the sea and the boundary between land and sea," says the dancer. Even the name of his 41-year-old troupe, Sankai Juku, means "studio between mountain and sea".

He was born in Yokosuka, Japan, in 1949 and encountered butoh during its origins as a revolutionary performance art in the 1960s. Pioneering practitioners often turned to grotesque, brooding images to express the country's post-war angst. Instead, he often seeks to create something spiritual and transcendent.

Tobari - As If In An Inexhaustible Flux, presented in Singapore in 2012, comes from a Japanese word that means a fabric partition and also expresses the passing of time, from day to night. Part of the staging evoked an ethereal interstellar landscape.

Kagemi: Beyond The Metaphors Of Mirrors, shown here in 2014, came from a root word "kagami" meaning mirrors and explored various meanings of "reflection", including self-reflection.

On stage, the dancers of Sankai Juku have shaved heads and are dusted all over in white. Amagatsu has said in previous interviews that this is to erase superficial differences and bring out a deeper essence. For him, butoh is "a dialogue with gravity", one not expressed in leaps and bounds, but through internal reflection - a dance form that seeks to express universal truth.

He says: "As we are all influenced by gravity, dialogue with gravity can be universal regardless of nationality or culture. It is my basic position in creation from the beginning."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Inspired by images in the mind's eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe