As Sankai Juku begins their recent piece, TOBARI, everything melts into darkness and a lone human form materializes — bald, half-naked, monochrome; the dust looks like it’s marble or bone, maybe a thin layer of atomic ash, and it covers the body, which, for a while, is motionless; a quiet, lunar presence in a dark room.
Then a shiver snaps through the fingers and up the arm. It sends dust cover into cloud, and the stone form becomes a kind of clay-faced everyman man, who blinks and moves and does not speak.
He is delicate, slight. A body all sinew and muscles taut with control. Short gestures ripple across his fingers, along his arms, and out through the rest of him. It’s like he is being moved by something, he’s not a marionette, though, it’s something darker than that. Then he disappears and another, identical figure, appears across the stage.
As the performance continues for an unbroken 90 minutes, the motions don’t get any easier to predict or decode. It’s as abstract and unyielding as a canvas that flickers back and forth between an Italian fresco and a Roswell alien. With so many identically dusted bodies moving in a kind of cockeyed synchronicity, individuality becomes impossible on stage.
Butoh is a strain of Japanese dance with its origins inseparably rooted in the Emperor’s revocation of his divinity and is equally intertwined with Japan’s history as the only population to have experienced what it is to be a victim of atomic weapons, and a Butoh performance is like watching humans shift from being stone statuary to becoming bone-snapping, otherworldly creatures; a discontinuous mix of beauty and the baldfaced moral horror of weapons that can vaporize bone.