Sankai Juku – Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors

Posted: November 18th, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: Ambient, Audio-Visual, Events | No Comments »

Japan’s renowned dance troupe Sankai Juku touched stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall last night, using its butoh patterns to mirror the evolutions of history, the tensions of civilization and the timeless call of nature. The main metaphor of Kagemi that conveyed this message was a floating field of giant lotus pads that gently rose and fell. Wrapped in this context, the silent dancers, dressed and painted in white, moved like ghosts that mirrored the natural elements, animal behavior, the power of industry and the mystery of time itself.

The dancers first rested under the lotus pads, which twirled almost imperceptibly. Rising above on wires, the leaves defied gravity as the dancers began to billow underneath like weeds at the bottom of a stream. Soft, pulsating sounds carefully lifted their movements, opening their bodies like blooming flowers.

Opening Kagemi up was the sublime music of Yoichiro Yoshikawa and Takashi Kako. The composition “Manebi – Two Mirrors” fluttered to an endless phrasing of little taiko drums, mapping time through a tunnel of moving points to and from an infinite origin. Skin-drum tones hit multiple points in all four dimensions, using rhythm and harmony together. Like stark constellations they repeated intermittently in a call and response with the mind, accenting the taiko cycling below, approximating groove and arousing the heart to the vast expanses of tribal consciousness.

After a flurry of rhythmic movements, alternating in geometic patterns, more strident sounds followed, supporting the dancers’ increasingly abstract language. Mimicking the facial expressions of surprised and listless apes, three of the troupe switched between calm and manic behavior in repeating sets. Those familiar with Japan’s Three Wise Monkeys that “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” might have caught a humanist reference.


Sankai Juku at Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Carlos de las Piedras.

The music evolving into rougher textures, the dancers’ movements suggested the mindless march of the machine, at once more erratic, more repetitive and more rigid. Unsettling electric guitar accompanied a change of energy and costume, the dancers becoming mirror holograms of reality, donned in long, soot-splotched coats roving round and round like gears in a factory.

Some onlookers left the hall as the tangled images and sounds reached an almost unbearable peak, its building intensity and oppressive order forcing onlookers to examine the most elemental paths of the psyche. For myself, the biracial tug of my Asian and European roots pulled me deep down into an awareness of my global origins, two hemispheres locked in a ping pong match.

Here was the humanity of the message in director Ushio Amagatsu’s Kagemi at work: “The Kage of Kagemi is shadow,” he writes in the program. “The light of contrast, the image in the mirror of water’s surface. The mi is seeing and being seen. Some say Kagemi is the ancient origin of ‘mirror’ (kagemi). In light, the surface that reflects and is reflected, looked into and looking back, surface beginning in the horizontal water plane and transforming to the perpendicular face” — a textual overlay to the speechless drama drifting below the lotus leaves and the water’s surface.

And then: silence, darkness, stillness.

Flowing back in like dust motes, the dancers moved in painfully slow gestures, bending, rolling, flowering, until anxiety subsided and delight emerged. “Agitation and Sedimentation” marked an unforgettable end, music without drums reaching the cloudy heights, lifting with warm currents of air and water, slowly evolving into joy. In this floating world, the lotus petals returned to the earth, Sankai Juku ballooning in slow motion like underwater clouds of river sand, over and over until sleep triumphed. Time had found its tranquil pool, the stillness along its banks allowing clear, moonlit reflections.

lotus leaves

Dancers rest under lotus leaves. Image from Sankai Juku site.

As the ripples of its reflective energy subsided and the dancers bowed in the same slow grace, the audience erupted in the greatest applause I can remember, a standing ovation and whistles greeting the dancers in a hall where they had brought time to a standstill. It was as if the patient fluidity of their expressions were one and the same with the shores of reality, transforming how we sensed the present.

It was a generous gift beyond words, a plea to slow down in this global information age, to pull out of its emotional addictions and stare back in awe at nature through art, to see through the crystallized confines of our artificial world. “From an ambiguous and transient state to one clearly outlined, the right hand asks, the left hand answers, once an imaginary surface is defined,” Amagatsu concludes in his poem.

According to the program, Kagemi‘s lotus design was inspired by a meeting between Amagatsu and Mr. Riho Senba, the head master of the “Koryushooukai” school of Ikebana — the art of Japanese flower arrangement.

Making connections with techno and ambient culture — the tribal patterns of electronic dancers reflecting their own spirits through intricate movements of the body — it is heartening and yet not so surprising that fine art, modern art, and popular art are sifting through the same sediments for truth, our cauliflower brains inverted in the outward life of plants and dance.

Like the constellation lines in “Two Mirrors,” they interlocked in conversation. “The story of our time,” they seemed to say, “At root, is a story of identity.”

Music Samples:
Manebi – Two Mirrors
Infinitie Dialogue
Chiral/Archiral, Agitation and Sedimentation

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