Lifting the curtain

The Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku will perform in Tel Aviv.

The Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku will perform in Tel Aviv (photo credit: PR)
The Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku will perform in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: PR)
Years ago, a friend invited me to see a performance of Sankai Juku’s Kagemi – Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I had never heard of the troupe before and was only vaguely familiar with Butoh, the dance style the company is famous for.
Stepping into the theater, I was momentarily paralyzed by the sheer beauty of the stage. Artistic director Ushio Amagatsu, who contributed the choreography, set and costume design to the work, had decided to welcome the audience with a stage filled with giant hovering white orchids. Ten years later, my mind often wanders back to that piece.
Next month, Sankai Juku will return to Israel to perform Tobari – As If in an Inexhaustible Flux at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. It has been 10 years since Sankai Juku’s last tour to Israel, during which Amagatsu presented his 1998 opus Hibiki.
Even then, a decade ago, the seed for Tobari existed in Amagatsu’s mind.
“I thought about creating a piece using stars as a set a long time ago,” Amagatsu explains. “Only after more than 10 years since I thought of stars first could I create this piece.”
Tobari means “curtain” in Japanese.
Tobari is a veil of fabric hung in a space as a partition. Since ancient times, tobari has been used poetically to express the passage from day to night. Tobari is the moment that we notice only when it has passed.
Likewise, the light of stars we see now is the light emitted a long, long time ago. In this meaning, in this world we embrace the past as the present. I thought about the past, the present and these relationships with people with past and present in Tobari,” says Amagatsu.
The piece is performed by eight male dancers to an original score by Takashi Kaho, Yas-Kas and Yochiro Yoshikawa.
As in all of Sankai Juku’s works, the circle of life is a major theme in Tobari.
Death and rebirth are depicted multiple times. As in most of his creative processes, Amagatsu simultaneously worked on the choreography, set and costumes for Tobari. The entire process took about half a year.
“I worked on physical and musical elements of preparing for about six months. And we eventually spent two months in the dance studio. But, actually, I may say that I always begin thinking about the next piece when I complete the piece before it,” he says.
Amagatsu, 65, was born and raised in Japan. His childhood occurred in tandem with the development of Butoh, the art form he pioneers.
Emerging following World War II, Butoh is often referred to as “the dance of darkness” or “the dance of the dead.” Dancers usually perform with white makeup covering their faces, moving slowly and disjointedly throughout the space.
“I became a Butoh dancer not by seeing it but by getting involved in it,” says Amagatsu. “The first Butoh performance I saw was the first production I was in. It was a production of Dairakudakan (a Butoh collective co-founded by Amagatsu in 1972).”
That first show sparked a love in Amagatsu that continues to grow with the years.
“Through Butoh, we can pursue what human beings are. There lies an individual philosophy. Butoh can change itself naturally, since individual pursuit of expressions varies from each other, for example, as each generation has different experiences or philosophies,” he says.
In 1975, Amagatsu broke off to establish his own company, Sankai Juku. Five years later, he moved the budding troupe from Tokyo to Paris, where the company continues to work.
The move, brought on by an overwhelming opportunity to reach farther afield, marked a decided change in Amagatsu’s creative life, as well as a giant leap for the art form.
“Before I went to Europe, I think that my creations came from my personal experiences. However, as we toured the world performing, every city we went to was different in terms of language, food, daily life customs and all. We were drenched in a shower of differences every day. But at the same time, I realized that there is a human universality that exists, regardless of nationality or culture. Looking back now, I feel that those personal experiences of universality are the backbone that has enabled me to create my works,” he explains.
While in town, Amagatsu and company members will teach two master classes at the Suzanne Dellal Center. During these sessions, the dancers will share bits of the rich imagery that Amagatsu uses to convey his vision to them in the studio.
Sankai Juku will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on December 12, 13, 14 and 15. For more information, visit