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Sankai Juku

'Kinkan Shonen' ('The Kumquat Seed')

by Carmel Morgan

February 12, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

As part of a month-long celebration of Japan, the Kennedy Center presented the world renowned Butoh troupe Sankai Juku to a crowd of Washingtonians on Tuesday, February 12, 2008.  “Kinkan Shonen,” in English “The Kumquat Seed,” which was first performed thirty years ago, was recreated in Paris in 2005 and was revived for this performance.  The work has seven distinct parts that form an extremely loose narrative.

The piece is grounded in Japanese aesthetics, but it is nonetheless accessible to an American audience.  Indeed, Butoh serves a bridge via which contemporary Japanese performance artists can connect with those outside their culture.  After an initial period of restlessness, the audience grew extremely quiet.  Presumably, many were absorbed by the show. Although they may seem strange to a Western audience,  the slow movements, white body make-up, and wide gaping mouths typical of Butoh are profoundly affecting.  The humor and suffering portrayed by Sankai Juku need no translation.   

Butoh is a unique form of expression that uses the entire body as an emotive tool.  Whether wrestling in a ring of light or moving up and down like well-oiled pistons, there’s something both otherworldly and terribly human about the Butoh artists in “Kumquat.”  The slow pace allows one to appreciate subtle movements.  It also heightens the senses, priming one for an inspirational journey. 

Butoh emerged from the aftermath of World War II, and “Kumquat” seems to be, in part, a protest against war, and maybe against nationalism as well.  The red outline of a circle prominently displayed on a clear rectangle hanging on one side of the stage evokes images of the Japanese flag, as does the militaristic school uniform of the first figure to appear.  When an air raid siren sounds, the boyish character grabs fistfuls of sand and fitfully tosses them, creating clouds of dust (or are they ashes?).

The second scene of “Kumquat” is perhaps the most engrossing.  Four bare-chested, skirted men with faceless masks make eerily bent claws or fan their fingers out like sea anemone.  The music is dissonant, scratchy, and rises to an almost uncomfortable blare mimicking the earlier air raid siren.  The quartet undulates across the stage with their backs to the audience.  Their arms are wrapped in front of them, hidden, so they look like armless Greek statues come to life.  They sway hypnotically, their hips moving from side to side like reeds in a breeze, as they dance in a diagonal strip of light.  Gradually, the long skirts loosen and fall beneath their buttocks, exposing round pale peaches.                           

In the third scene, titled “Peacock,” a barely clothed figure with his back to the audience is holding something, caressing it.  He carefully balances on one leg, sweeping the other around half bent, moving slowly forward.  The sound of cicadas erupts providing imagery of a summer night.  What appears to be a bundle of peacock feathers is in a fact a live peacock, we discover, when the dancer surprisingly releases the bird onto the stage to strut.

There are plenty of unexpected moments in “Kumquat” in addition to the bare bottoms and the live peacock.  A lone dancer walks across a dark stage in bluish light.  Suddenly, the figure becomes two people.  The dancers walked in such perfect unison that no one had an inkling two were there.  There is also an impish midget priest who makes an appearance.  His arms and legs are bafflingly and humorously short.  His head bobs like a doll as he laboriously waddles and silently laughs to the beat of Scottish bagpipes and rat-a-tat drums.  Only later do his long limbs become visible, relieving some of the mystery.  Then there are the dancing mummies with long, silvery, needle-like sticks stuck through their heads.  These are later easily removed and thrown with force onto the floor.  Finally, in a trick of lighting, shadows show an object hanging in the air with a teardrop shape at its tip – looking something like an oversized military medal.  However, once the lighting changes, the teardrop is revealed to be a golden-hued human, a sacrificed dancer suspended by his feet from a blood-red triangle.

The performers’ bow and exit were as elegant and graceful as the performance itself.  The members of Sankai Juku walked backward, slowly waving their hands, until the very tip of the last finger of the last hand disappeared into a wall of blue light.  The company’s founder, director, and choreographer, Ushio Amagatsu, has created with “Kumquat” a rich work of art, and its impact continues to linger long after the last finger tip slips away.

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