Body sculpture and scenic spectacle unite as metaphysical movement-theater in the repertory of Sankaijuku, the Japanese performance quintet that presented Ushio Amagatsu's "Shijima" at Royce Hall, UCLA, on Wednesday.
Amagatsu's scenic environments invariably change the stage into an existential theme park and "Shijima" is no exception: We see an enclosure of high walls made from three levels of granite blocks--each block containing a life-size human fossil. Against this imposing monument, the company appears: heads shaven, bodies and costumes colored to match the walls.
Periodically, granite-dust cascades from above--suggesting that the walls form part of a tomb deep within the earth. Similarly, the group dances suggest rituals of purification, death and rebirth. But we also witness the private agony of a man (Amagatsu) who touches his own body and then one of the fossil-men in the wall, finding his inescapable destiny at his fingertips.
At the beginning of the 90-minute performance, Amagatsu perches high above the others on a tiny platform. At the end, they hover above him, hanging from aerial harnesses. As usual with Sankaijuku, he is the only individual in the piece and they stay undifferentiated.
This quickly becomes a problem, for Amagatsu may be a dazzling designer-director, but he remains a mediocre performer, addicted to silent screams but seldom able to fill them with anything but hot air. "Shijima" gives him endless opportunities for scenery-chewing but it's the scenery we watch--that and the selfless foursome enacting his picturesque rites of passage.
A warning: Sankaijuku promotes itself as part of the contemporary Japanese dance-theater idiom called \o7 butoh. \f7 However, the group grew popular with audiences outside Japan after repudiating the anarchic vision at the core of \o7 butoh \f7 and substituting a Frenchified sense of order and proportion.
Authentic \o7 butoh \f7 embraces the irrational and rejects both the formalized dance traditions of Japan and the intellectualized innovations of the West. Sankaijuku's \o7 butoh\f7 , however, looks like nothing so much as Wagner operas in the formalized, intellectualized stagings they received from Wagner's grandsons at Bayreuth three and four decades ago. "Shijima" may offer a feast for the eyes, but underneath it's just "Parsifal" facing East.