Sankai Juku | Photo by Laurent Phillipe | Courtesy of CAP UCLA

How Fragile We Are: Sankai Juku’s “Umusuna — Memories Before History”

A Review of Sankai Juku’s October 2015 Performance at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

On and on the rain will fall
 Like tears from a star like tears from a star
 On and on the rain will say
 How fragile we are how fragile we are — Sting, “

In 1987, the New York Times declared that, “Butoh is not for the frail.” And yet Sankai Juku’s “Umusuna — Memories Before History,” is a work that captivates precisely because it is fragile — the whole work feels as if it could break into a million marvelous little pieces at any second.

The moment the curtain rises a thin stream of sand descends from the loft space’s upper reaches, as if trickling through the funnel of an unseen hour glass. While no real glass casing contains this particle source, it feels as though the stage is screened in some protective cellophane.

Breathe too hard and you might ruffle its thin surface. Cough and you might just puncture this plastic bubble — rustle the happenings within.

Because in this dance world movement is so meticulously timed and executed that any outside interruption may break its captivating spell.

For every move looks as though it were integral to some complex ritual. Miss one step, pass too quickly through a single motion and the chain of movement could be interrupted, the flow irreparably damaged.

That warning comes through loud and clear when four red skirted and corseted men not only pantomime cutting their own throats wide open but also appear to drop invisible pins from their delicate fingertips. If Grecian fates cut the chord of life with scissors, than these pale monsters end life by menacingly just letting it go…a drop to the floor without a thought to the forthcoming thud.

The message is clear. Do not disturb.

Yet these porcelain men look as if they could break as easily as china dolls smashed against the floor.

Yet they rise. Like four demons, they seem to rise out of the earth’s bowels like mountains shoved up to the surface through the brute, yet persistent force of one tectonic plate running head on into another.

The black holes in their mouths are bottomless pits with direct connections to the underworld. And while blaring horns and hallow screams emit from their ghastly apertures, it seems as if nothing could every fill these dark voids.

And so the sand stream flows on and on and on, a calm trickle into the tumult below.

On the sandy floor they scuttle like scarab beetles and twitch like fleas. They flip and flop to paranoid attention — toes curled and feet pointed to the sky like ever-listening antennae — alert to the moment when they could be quashed by some force from on high, swept up by a windstorm, struck by a piercing strike of lightening.

There are even instances when they curl up like embryonic fetuses. Yet they are vulnerable without the shelter of a womb.

A passage from a Nicole Walker poem comes to mind:

“Eggs like their fragility. Little planets full of life go out of their way to show their cracks, their fault lines. Revealing their flaws reveals their tensile strength. What does not kill me, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…Hold an egg up to your eye. Imperfections swirl, gray rivers. Scratch you finger across it. It is as perfect as it ever was. As beautiful as a planet, heaving with life, stronger than it looks. Still likely to break.”

For Sankai Juku there is strength in weakness— frailty is a virtue.

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