November 2, 2015
Ushio Amagatsu’s latest work for Sankai Juku, his company of forty years, fits mammoth themes into a tiny word count. Umusuma: Memories Before History is not a title that translates a foreign word; it extends one. “Umusuma” is Japanese for “the place of one’s birth.” The connection of these ideas sets up physical and mental spaces and leaves us between their proximity to time.
Focusing on birth as an event and location allows the iconic Butoh ensemble to apply the form’s characteristically temporal fixation to space. The company moves as though contained by plastic wrap, slowly stretching outward to snap back in, placing each body at the edge of its universe. A quartet in matching red corsets loops a phrase with many facing shifts built in, without which the movement might unravel for miles. They later switch off gesturing at the center of the others’ orbits. After a complete cycle, the orbits circle emptiness and the solos spin freely, dissociating the seeming spatial codependence.
Integrating the work is the physicalization of time. Hovering above the action are two hour glasses spewing sand on their respective plates of a scale between which a larger stream flows. The image gives time a body – a spatial existence of its own. Each section is punctuated by a different tipping of the scale; however, the same amount of sand continually drops. Time’s subjectivity allows its embodied form multiple, supposedly contradictory gravitational relationships.
Gravity is Amagatsu’s choreographic fixation, employing long stretches of movement that oscillate levels with imperceptible smoothness. As a soloist, he carves pathways in his torso, packing ribs into crooked corners that realign when his arms unfurl upward. From an extended hand, one fingertip drops away. Awareness of joint space allows folding of the seemingly straight. In groups, Amagatsu orchestrates staggered accumulations, stitching together independent movement snippets. Occasional alignments give the illusion of time travel when our noticing is completely in the present. Most clearly, dancers drop handfuls of sand, counteracting the quickness of its downward release with glacial ascent.
The immediacy of Genta Iwamura’s lighting situates us between periods of letting go, painting roadmaps of color and light. A tan backlight renders the sand invisible until a sudden, stark yellow casts shadows of the hills forming all along. White light erases the transparent scale completely. We experience our inability to hold on to a constant awareness of time within a piece explicitly exploring it not as our weakness, but as our humanity.
Casting is equally thematic. Opening with a solo on center, Amagatsu avoids a standard circular ending, reprising as the penultimate section to reinforce the sand’s presence before it vanishes in white light, keeping just off the stream’s shoulder. Despite humbly swapping focal roles, he pronouncedly marks his absence afterwards. Amid a tableau of couples, a dancer stage left bluntly lacks his partner. Above spoiled symmetry, the scale of time returns to a perfect balance, dissociating time’s seeming codependence with our experience of it.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews