Sankai Juku: Toki @ Sadler’s Wells, London

performed by
Sho Takeuchi, Akihito Ichihara, Taiyo Tochiaki, Ichiro Hasegawa, Dai Matsuoka, Nobuyoshi Asai, Ushio Amagatsu, Semimaru, Sho TakeuchiSince their foundation in 1975, Sankai Juku have become the leading exponents of butoh, an expressionist contemporary dance form which originated in Japan in the late 1950s and later became international.

The company’s founder Artistic Director Ushio Amagatsu has brought two shows to Sadler’s Wells. Following on from a re-creation of their first full-length work Kinkan Shonen (Kumquat Seed) comes a revival of their 2005 piece Toki (Time).

As the title suggests, the show is an abstract meditation on the passing of time, especially in relation to the diurnal movement of the sun.
Directed, choreographed and designed by Amagatsu, Toki presents moving tableaux in which eight male dancers (led by Amagatsu himself) execute a series of precise movements to create some starkly beautiful images that linger in the mind long after the show has finished. Shaven headed, with their faces and bodies painted white (in traditional butoh style), some bare-chested and some in pale-orange robes, the performers resemble pagan priests worshipping the sun in some mysterious religious ceremony.

The show begins with three dancers writhing as if in a trance within a semi-circle of seven tall obelisks, until a spear-like object descends through a golden circle suspended above the stage to awaken four more figures entwined together on the ground. It’s an extraordinary powerful moment when this corpse-like heap of bodies unfolds like the petals of a flower in the sun, arms stretching upwards in search of life-giving energy.

Other memorable images include a sheet being lifted from four corners around one person in the middle and the way in which performers half-emerge and peer from behind the obelisks, upon which shadows gradually lengthening, as well as the climactic slow advance of all performers together towards the audience, like a moving alabaster sculpture, before darkness falls. There is no narrative yet we still feel a sense of evolution. The overall effect is enigmatic and eerie, as if we are witnessing some eternally repeated ritual, enhanced by the haunting electronic score of Takashi Kako Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa.

Butoh will not be to everybody’s taste. Some people will feel that not a lot happens very slowly, interspersed with brief bursts of frenetic movement, and will want to fast forward to the next piece of action. Watching it is rather like listening to minimalist music, with its repetitions and minute variations on a theme building up a subtly cumulative impact: every detail counts in the overarching visual presentation. There may not be a great deal of external activity, but you can sense an inner momentum. And in this show Sankai Juku succeed in capturing the essence of time to create a truly timeless work of art.

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