Japan Festival's 'Kinkan Shonen': Unveiling Naked Truths

The butoh dance company Sankai Juku performs
The butoh dance company Sankai Juku performs "Kinkan Shonen," which offered few answers but plenty to think about. (Kennedy Center)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

You had to marvel at the unflinching control of the seven members of the all-male butoh dance company Sankai Juku, one of whom was a live peacock. In keeping with the glacial pace of the company's surreal, fitfully provocative "Kinkan Shonen" ("The Kumquat Seed"), the bird, which stood onstage for roughly half of the work's 100 uninterrupted minutes, comported itself exactly like its human counterparts. That is, with slow, purposeful steps, or by holding a pose for long periods of utter stillness. And by bearing patient witness to the other performers' tortured meditations on the mortal condition.

Lacking the patience of the peacock, several audience members walked out of Tuesday's performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House, which was already lightly attended, at least in part because of bad weather. No one can blame them: "Kinkan Shonen," performed through last night as part of the center's Japan festival, is as much an ordeal as it is a work of art.

Butoh welcomes silence, the slow simmer of ritual and existential themes such as conformity, despair and modern isolation. Even so, this work, which Sankai Juku founder Ushio Amagatsu created 30 years ago at the start of his career, and which helped shoot the troupe to international fame, is problematic on several fronts. Foremost is that while its seven sections offer a host of strikingly dramatic, beautiful and unexpected images -- in one spot, you get a long look at the pearly bare backsides of the dancers, after they've shimmied out of their floor-length skirts -- they do not build; they have little connection to what has come before or what follows. Any tension that grows eventually seeps out, like air from a punctured tire, as you struggle to make sense of the next segment.

That is, until the end, with the most sensational and poignant image of all: a naked man dangling by his feet from unseen supports against a deep blue sky, as serene and restfully posed as an Egyptian mummy, while an intentionally sappy-triumphant rendition of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" competes with the sound of exploding artillery. Is this a vision of a fetus awaiting birth into a desperately conflicted world? Or is it what death looks like, as you float peacefully above a living hell? Or does the man represent the questioning nonconformist, out of sync and alone?

"Kinkan Shonen" offered few answers, but it presented a great deal to think about, and for me, that made up for its more impenetrable moments. I'm not sorry I saw it, and not just because of the bird and the behinds.

There's no denying that it is a hard sell, however. You need to adjust your expectations significantly for butoh, which arose as an art of pain and reckoning after World War II. It was conceived to root postmodern dance in a Japanese, rather than a Western, aesthetic and worldview-- thus the severely unadorned look of the Sankai Juku performers, with their shaved heads, chalk-covered bodies and occasional nudity.

"Kinkan Shonen" opens with a lone man onstage, dressed in a schoolchild's quasi-military uniform. He crashes alarmingly to the stage, raising a cloud of dust that seems to trigger a transformation; he's no longer a boy but some primitive creature, stuffing fistfuls of sand into his mouth and blowing it back out. Following this, we see four shirtless, masked men in long stiff skirts that seem to be caked with great globs of mud. They are slightly twisted, a study of spines and torque; they languidly sink and rise as if anchored in primordial goo.

We've traveled back to a highly stylized view of mankind's origins, apparently, and they are starkly beautiful. Kudos to the lighting technicians Genta Iwamura and Satoru Suzuki, who draw the eye to the work's fascinating play of textures: the bone-white ashiness of the dancers' skin and the crinkled, aged look of their costumes, especially; also, the natural beauty of the wooden panels covered in what look like boomerangs, or huge sharks' teeth, which form a backdrop.

Other images included the wary, watchful boy clutching his peacock as if it is a feathery security blanket; slow-motion wrestling that turns disturbingly violent; a waddling midget, his mouth contorted in forced laughter -- a reference to post-Hiroshima deformities? -- who suddenly casts off his tiny kimono and unfolds himself to reveal a full-size man in flamboyant drag, sweeping grandly around the empty stage, waving enthusiastic greetings. But there is no one to watch him; he's alone, dangling apart as surely as the upside-down dancer who closes the piece in the next scene.

We came from dust, we gravitate to violence, we end up alone, they seem to say -- it's not a pleasant view of things, but "Kinkan Shonen" has its finger on a lingering unnamable unease, which feels real perhaps now even more than 30 years ago.

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