The University Musical Society first invited Sankai Juku to Ann Arbor in 1996. Now, over 20 years later, this weekend will mark their eighth and ninth performances at the Power Center. Between those visits to Michigan, the Japanese dance group has performed in over 700 cities and 48 countries worldwide. 

That may be a lot of travel, but Artistic Director and Choreographer Ushio Amagatsu is not tired by his international reception. In an email interview, he told The Daily that he has found a “universality” between those hundreds of different microcultures, writing that “this difference composes a culture” of its own. 

He uses this concept to continue his ongoing fomentation of the Butoh dance style. 

Born in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s atomic bombings, Butoh is not loved for its prettiness. Instead, the dance form garners attention for its grotesque imagery and uncomfortable movements. Dancers use Butoh’s uneasy nature to bring attention to darker and more complex aspects of modern Japanese culture. When Amagatsu founded Sankai Juku in 1975, he melded that history with his training from other dance techniques to create the second generation of Butoh that we see today. His group performs with the traditional head-to-toe white body makeup and shaved heads, and the effect draws dramatic lines between the dancers and the negative space that surrounds them. 

Using this contrast, performers move through undulations in a process that Amagatsu describes as “conformity with gravity.” Some claim the result is simply slow-motion movement, but Amagatsu disagrees. In his email, he took care to point out that “it’s the careful correspondence with gravity.” That hyper-control is far more distinct than a description of speed, and the effects are far more powerful. Even through the video clips on the UMS website, the performances leaves your heart feeling uncommonly still. 

This weekend, the group will perform “Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land,” a work that found its inspiration in a bio-history book that Amagatsu read. The work first premiered in Japan in 2015 and focuses on the rhythmic repetitions of earthly processes. Given his childhood spent by the ocean, Amagatsu added that he’s especially interested in the “boundary between land and sea.” In the work, dancers focus on the universality and timeless nature of oceanic processes, which Amagatsu connected to the “universality beyond the differences of cultures” that he has found through his years spent abroad. 

“It is difficult to explain the details (of that simplicity) in words. The image in my mind leads me to construct a creation,” Amagatsu said. With that, he touched on the very essence of dance; conveying a concept that comes from deep within. Though we often share these ideas or feelings with everyone around us, they often sit untouched until a dancer comes along to uncover them. 

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