Dance performances explore traditional Japanese dance | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Dance performances explore traditional Japanese dance

Much of Japanese dance is deeply rooted in tradition. But some forms evolved in a more radical direction. Now two upcoming dance performances in Chicago boldly merge past and present forms. For WBEZ, dance critic Lucia Mauro has this report.

Patience is a virtue for audiences attending performances by Sankai Juku and Yasuko Yokoshi. But the inner peace achieved at the end of these shows is well worth the wait. Overall, these Japanese dance artists favor gradually unfolding movement that has a meditative effect on viewers. But as individuals, their approaches are decidedly different.

Sankai Juku, an all-male Japan-based Butoh company, debuts at the Harris Theater. Phil Reynolds, executive director of the Dance Center of Columbia College, which is co-presenting the performance, calls Butoh Japan’s greatest contribution to world culture in the 20th century. His statement is not that exaggerated. At its most basic level Butoh, loosely translated as dark dance of the soul, arose from the horrors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Early developed its signature look: emaciated men, their heads shaved, covered in white body powder executing agonized gestures at a glacial pace.

Ushio Amagatsu, founder of Sankai Juku, prefers a gentler, less grotesque, presentation that honors the human bond to nature, the elements and mysticism. His epic work, Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away, will be performed in Chicago. The opening scene features five men in chalk-white makeup and long skirts rising through their spine from a fetal position on clay-colored coasters. Large glass bowls fill with water from dripping overhead urns as the artists perform movement that can be both frantic and imperceptible. Their hips swivel hula-like as their flowing arms break at the elbow before their sculptural forms recede into the darkness. They reemerge as semi-inert statues with visible bones and musculature. In one of the more stunning sections, ghostly men in corsets advance toward a blood-red cauldron, as if in a trance. Butoh, a dance form that is difficult to define due to its vaguely mystical quality, uses the body as a bridge to pass energy…a gateway to another dimension.

Yasuko Yokoshi, a dancer-choreographer born in Hiroshima but based in New York City for almost 20 years, uses the body in a more presentational way. She brings to Chicago a cross-cultural reimagining of Tale of the Heike. The Japanese epic tells the almost 100-year-old story of clashing samurai clans in the 12th century. Renamed Tyler Tyler, her performance threads together Western post-modern styles with Kabuki Su-Odori, a stripped-down form of Kabuki minus the elaborate facial makeup and exaggerated gestures. Interestingly, Eastern and Western dancers swap roles. In one part, a Japanese dancer in a kimono plucks the keys of a toy piano as he sings The Carpenters’ "Yesterday Once More". Simultaneously, a woman in a long pioneer skirt flings her body around. Recurring sounds of screeching birds and the dancers’ ever-present paper fans seem to signify the notion of history repeating itself – an idea most notable in the slow morphing of a kimono-clad warrior into a Victorian lady and then a cowboy. Both Sankai Juku and Yasuko Yokoshi explore the Buddhist principle of impermanence…the philosophy that nothing lasts forever.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.