Editor’s Note: All quotes from the interview with Ushio Amagatsu were translated from English to Japanese and from Japanese back to English by Midori Okuyama and Yasuko Takai
Butoh looms large in the story of the post-war avant-garde arts in Japan. The brainchild of Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, Butoh is an experimental movement in dance that established a novel visual and physical vocabulary in dance. Slow, controlled movement and striking, often unnerving costume define this genre that strives “to find, in the depth of each human being, a common sense, a serene universality, even if, sometimes, it refers to cruelty or brutality.”
For those first-generation innovators in Butoh, violent and unsettling images were the order of the day. But for Ushio Amagatsu, the director and founder of Sankai Juku, the world-renowned Butoh troupe founded in 1975 and based out of Paris, doesn’t draw its inspiration from violence in the pursuit of this universality.
“I was born by the sea,” Amagatsu said in an email interview with The Michigan Daily. “Boundary between land and sea, a changing color from dawn to a blue sky, on the contrary, from red sunset to blue that is further darkened deeper, and the repetition of them that we may call as ‘eternity’ … These impressions still dwell upon my mind.”
Where Amagatsu departs from the violence and grotesquerie of the first-generation of Butoh dancers, he emphasizes the imperceptible, the uncanny, the eternal. Particularly so in Sankai Juku’s upcoming performance in Ann Arbor: UMUSUNA: Memories Before History.
“Umusuna is a Japanese word that means a place of one’s birth. When I apply this word to the whole of human being, the earth itself becomes Umusuna,” Amagatsu said. “I believe that the relationship between the place of birth and people is always deeply affected by a certain natural element, and I don’t think this relationship changes at present, and in the future as well, as it didn’t change in the past.”
Amagatsu uses Butoh as a medium with which to explore the prehistory of the individual, linking the movement of dancers’ bodies to a primordial human “correspondence with gravity,” using Amagatsu’s phrase, that begins in the womb.
“I basically think that Butoh is a dialogue with gravity. That is not repulsion to gravity, but it is closer to conformity with gravity. Therefore, a little careful way of corresponding with gravity is necessary. In this view, some people might say our dance is a slow-motion, but it’s not,” Amagatsu said. “It is a result of careful correspondence with gravity.”
Related to this, Amagatsu said in an interview with “Vogue Hommes 98-99,” that “dance is composed of tension and relaxation of gravity just like the principle of life and its process. An unborn baby who is floating inside mother’s womb faces to the tension of the gravity as soon as s/he is born.” The whole excerpt of this conversation is available in the UMS program booklet for the performance.
Sankai Juku’s spectacular achievements are founded on an aesthetic that weds form and content, the doing and the saying seamlessly. The choreographic technique Butoh itself communicates the primordial conflicts with which Amagatsu and the rest of the company are interested. With Amagatsu at the helm, Sankai Juku explores what Jean Viala and Nourit Masson-Sekine call “a kind of human archaeology” in their book “Butoh: Shades of Darkness.”