Last weekend, The Center for Art and Performance at UCLA hosted Sankai Juku (a Japanese company rooted in Butoh) in their touring performance Umusuna, a word meaning ‘memories’, or more deeply ‘one's place of birth’. For those of you who don’t know, Butoh is a kind of improvisation, a form of dance theater that practices movement from an internal initiation rather than consciously moving.
In the program for the show, or even the website page on UCLA Royce Hall, the presenting organization did not emphasize or advertise the performance as Butoh, which may not have been the smartest move. It’s difficult to be thrown into Butoh as a spectator if you have no idea what you’re getting, especially when the preview looks more exciting than the show actually is. The style of dance would be better advertised as a form of meditation or hypnosis, which would bring in a more loving audience. If you go into this performance expecting something crazy or just a ‘normal’ dance performance, you will most likely find yourself bored. Especially if the other audience members around you are less interested than you.
The theme of the work was about time; the set included balance scales holding hour glasses with sand that continuously poured out as the show progressed. The humorous irony of this set design is that watching hour glasses is painfully slow, creating a sense of uncomfortable angst. As humans, time is something we fear for it is ultimately our impending doom, and therefore we don’t like to be faced with watching time unless we have to. On top of watching time slowly go by, you can’t help but think maybe you’re wasting 90 minutes of your life with no intermission. The dancers embodied this story of fear and imbalance through energetic turmoil and anguish, but they also told the benefits of what time can bring such as growth and evolutionary advances, along with how peaceful and happy life can be within balance.
In a way the piece was a test of patience and inner tranquility and provided a spark of motivation to go live life fully. If you’re a dancer, you’re probably going to be set free, like a racehorse from the starting gate; suddenly you need to dance like a maniac to make up for how minimal and controlled the performance was. If it weren’t for the set, lighting, costume, and makeup, it would be hard to understand the story or the theme of the choreography since the intrinsic aspects were repetitive. The performance was like being trapped in the movie The Cell: everything was eerie, uncomfortable, confusing, deceiving and slightly frightening. The esthetics were mostly dark and creepy, you couldn’t really tell who was male or female, or if they were even suppose to be human.
This company is brave to bring themselves to LA, a city where everyone is impatient and dying to be unleashed, a place of relentless technology and multitasking, a place built on its production of over stimulating entertainment, a place that never stops except in the torment of traffic to breed agitation and aggression. While Japan’s culture has these things in common with LA, we make our entertainment reflect our lives in all of it’s chaos and exaggeration, while Japanese culture has always created time and space for tranquil artistic expression; their audiences have been trained to switch gears and process. Japanese culture values the art of subdulty, something western culture has become numb to.
If you surrender to the performance and let yourself become hypnotized you will love it, but if you allow yourself to be distracted by your neighbor who either fell asleep, constantly looks at their phone, shifts, taps, or keeps trying to read the program, you won’t make it through easily. This is the type of performance you should see by yourself, or with someone you know will appreciate the slow beauty in life, for the key to this performance is lack of distraction and silencing your own inner voice to simply absorb.