There is no denying the hypnotic grace of Sankai Juku. The all-male troupe offers an uninterrupted 90 minutes of elegiac beauty that encapsulates all the visual characteristics of Butoh, a Japanese post-war expressionist movement style.
At the Esplanade Theatre on Wednesday, troupe founder and choreographer Ushio Amagatsu's Kagemi, a piece inspired by ikebana in the late 1970s which then germinated for 30 years, takes place on a striking stagescape of large lotus leaves. After an opening scene, the leaves are levitated and suspended from the ceiling, so that the subsequent action seems underwater. Ashen bald bodies creep across the dreamy gold-lit stage, which has one cleverly upturned corner to suggest unfinished business.
The work begins with a solo by Amagatsu, now 65, who seems to metamorphose into various shapes at a determinedly glacial pace. His every gesture is immaculate and deliberate. At times, he dances with his eyes closed, as though drunk in the moment.
Kagemi, meaning "to see one's shadow", might be part of the origin of the Japanese word for mirror, "kagami". With such a title, scenes playing with the notion of reflection abound in the work. Two dancers are pitched as symmetrical opposites, while another moves between them in another dimension. Flicking their wrists back and forth in the profiled stances of figures in an Egyptian frieze, they conjure a cloud of white powder with each abrupt gesture.
One macabre scene, titled Infinite Dialogue, is remarkable in contrast with the slow, ritualistic movement throughout. Clad in paint-splotched gowns, four dancers smear their faces with red and black stripes. Their exaggerated facial expressions are not unlike those of ghoulish clowns, miming and poking fun at one another's smudged complexions.
The unrelenting repetition and vacant gesturing of the choreography becomes onerous mid-way. But at the imminence of Kagemi's magnificent ending, one wishes it would carry on. The full company of six, in tasselled costumes which resemble rib cages over their chests, ripple their spines and articulate their florid fingers to stunning effect.
Here, the men show they are capable of transforming their masculine selves into feminine figures, evoking a gentle elegance through their undulations. They recline on the floor, as their limbs float skyward; the lotus leaves descend as they keep pining for the light.
What is most admirable about Sankai Juku is the discipline and intensity that underscores their performance. This is wholly apparent in the delicacy of their gestures and the physical mastery required for the smallest, slowest transitions.
Amagatsu is a creator of exquisite stage pictures, but through most of Kagemi the emotional temperature is regrettably low. The dancers are beautiful, but frigid. They seem to be moved by a deep internal impetus, but the work's sophistication inhibits their emotion from penetrating through to the audience.
The curtain call is perhaps the most nuanced moment of the show. The cast is still immersed in the performative state as they take their bows, their reverence for the enthusiastic audience seemingly magnified by their slow, deep bends.