One of the most unforgettable experiences in Washington's theatrical history took place not quite two years ago, when the Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku staged an outdoor "hanging" in front of the National Theatre.
It began when company director Ushio Amagatsu appeared on the roof of the building, his head shaven, his body draped in cream-colored jersey, an enormous conch shell in his hands. Blowing into this magical instrument, he summoned his associates: four otherworldly beings, garbed only in G-strings and rice flour. Fastening rings onto their ankles and ropes to the rings, they tipped upside down and lowered their curled bodies into space. Dangling serenely, they looked like powdered fetuses, or sacks of laundry. And when they unfurled and began to signal and flail, they could have been some primordial strain of humanity.
When at last these death-defying performers reached the ground, the spectators could barely suppress their relief and astonishment. Surging forward, they surrounded the men, who went through a bit of ritualistic gesturing and glided backward through the open doors of the theater.
When Sankai Juku returns to Washington this Thursday, there will be no "hangings" in its repertoire. There will also be a new member of the group. Last September 31-year-old Yoshiuki Takada, one of the company's founding members, fell to his death when the rope suspending him from Seattle's Mutual Life Building snapped.
"We have decided not to perform the hanging event for one year at least," Amagatsu says in a phone interview, speaking through company member Atsushi Ogata. The troupe is in Toronto, midway through its first tour since the accident.
In "Jomon Sho," the evening-length work to be performed here Thursday through Saturday at the Warner Theatre, he says, "the introduction used to be a kind of hanging upside down, but now I have made another introduction to replace it. It is a great pity, the accident, all of it."
The art of Sankai Juku has, since the group's inception in 1975, been concerned with matters of life and death, creation and destruction. It is one of several Japanese companies working in the post-Hiroshima style known as butoh.
"Butoh is a movement that happened 25 years ago," Amagatsu says. "It came out of the frustration felt after the war, when our concept of values turned over." Adherents of the butoh philosophy rejected both traditional Japanese dance and western styles in favor of a raw, more contemporary form of movement. The primitive was stressed. Acts of violence and rage made their way into performance. Butoh dancers performed in crematoriums, slaughtered chickens and danced in the blood, had their teeth extracted to disfigure themselves, emphasizing the grotesque quality of their art.
"Butoh is a realization of the distance between a human being and the unknown," Amagatsu has written. "It also represents man's struggle to overcome the distance between himself and the material world."
Trained at the Classical and Modern Dance School in Tokyo, Amagatsu first became involved with butoh as a young man. In 1975 he opened his own school. Thirty young people, many of them women, enrolled. Yet after six months only three men remained. Thus was Sankai Juku -- which, loosely translated, means "studio from the land of mountain and sea" -- established.
Unlike earlier practitioners of butoh, Amagatsu began to work on a less violent mode of movement, stressing the physical process of relaxation and tension, as well as nature imagery. Yet Japanese audiences considered all forms of butoh a blight on their cultural landscape. Wisely, Sankai Juku took its art to Europe, where, as early as 1980, it was met with great acclaim.
Today Amagatsu, 36, lives with his wife and 23-month-old daughter in Paris, and commutes to Tokyo to work with the company. And the Japanese have begun to come around. In the program notes for its recent engagements, Sankai Juku expresses thanks to Mitsubishi Corp. for support of its international tours.
Though the choreographer considers his work far removed from such theatrical forms as no and kabuki, and from classical Japanese dance, there exists an undeniable connection -- in the dancers' hypnotically slow movements and long passages of stillness, in the spare, controlled use of gesture, in the use of rice flour makeup. Audiences familiar with the expressionistic dance/theater works of German choreographer Pina Bausch may find themselves considering her extreme dramatic images. In fact, when asked whether any contemporary artists have made a strong impression on him, Amagatsu cites two: Bausch and experimental Polish playwright-director Tadeusz Kantor.
Judging by various accounts, "Jomon Sho" ("Homage to Prehistory") is a particularly stark and pristine example of Amagatsu's art. Premiered in Paris in 1982, the piece depicts the story of evolution. Divided into seven episodes, "Jomon Sho" unfolds in a mesmerizing, ritualistic manner, beginning with a collective birth scene and going on to include a horrifying sequence in which the director appears as a contorted mutant.
"The main theme is the question 'What is a human being?' " says Amagatsu. "What I am interested in deeply is what went on before each culture happened, the original root which made each country's culture."
Pressed to elaborate on any particular incident or influence that nourished the work's development, Amagatsu demurs in typical avant-garde fashion.
"What I wish," he says, "is that each spectator will make his own journey, and create his own dialogue."