A scene from “TOBARI” (image via The Joyce Theater and courtesy Sankai Juku)

Every now and then, if lucky, you’ll encounter a mode of performance or an artwork that simultaneously requires and supplies a kind of attention that you didn’t even know existed. Sitting in an otherworldly, attentive, stupor, I had that experience watching marble white humans covered in a thin layer of dust on a stage that seemed to be both as empty as nothing at all and, at the same time, as full as a night sky.

A view of Sankai Juku dancers (image via sankaijuku.com)

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.

Unrelentingly strange, almost like meditating for ninety minutes in someone else’s mind, TOBARI is one of the most memorable performances you can see.
Sankai Juku is performing TOBARI through Sunday, October 17 at the Joyce Theater (175 8th Avenue, Manhattan), before continuing on a tour to select cities elsewhere in the United States, Canada, and finally Japan.

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The Daily Beast The Nation, Newcity, Chicago Life, bookslut, and some other places. His online portfolio is...