The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unending challenge of butoh artist Ushio Amagatsu, a leader in the international dance scene for over 30 years
TOKI – A Moment in the Weave Time
Premiere: Dec 2005 at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris
The way of thinking about tension then is different between Western dance and butoh. Is that correct?
Yes. Most Western dance is created by tension. Raising one leg and holding it up, or controlling a particular form. The foundation for movement is tension. In contrast, we think of the relaxed state as the base of our dance. It is the act of relaxing for an instant that enables a shift of the body’s weight from the right leg to the left leg, and if you can’t perform that shift of the body’s center of gravity, you can’t take a single step. In other words, the relaxed state is in fact the base and from there it is a question of how much tension is applied. I believe that the process of paying careful attention to that relaxed state and the deliberate and measured application of tension is what makes a body able to understand and dance butoh.
  Naturally the movement becomes slow. After achieving an initial relaxed state, t is then a question of how you interact with gravity. If you try to move without breaking that “thread of consciousness” your movement naturally becomes gentle and slow. It seems that many people wonder why butoh movement has to be so slow-motion, but to me that slowness is a necessity. When you are attempting to engage in an attentive dialogue with gravity it naturally takes on that kind of posture and movement.

In short, the act of moving while maintaining that unbroken “thread of consciousness” naturally leads to slower movement. Is that right?
Yes. That’s right. You could say that all of the Sankai Juku choreography depends on whether or not you can keep that “thread of consciousness” unbroken. If that threat is broken it all becomes nothing more than exercise, or simple physical movement.
  For example, once the dancers are out on the stage, outside of them is no longer an ordinary daily-life space. Rather it becomes some type of “assumed external environment” such as the universe, the underwater world or perhaps a seashore. In other words, by interacting with the light, vibrations of sound or the space itself with a particular consciousness, we are attempting to project into the minds of the audience a virtual space and time experience.
  Furthermore, the dancers have their own intensive internal involvement that must not be broken. What the dancer is feeling internally at the moment may be fear or hope. And if you are able to pursue that feeling intently, without losing the thread, your movement will follow in suit naturally.
In short, Sankai Juku’s choreography consciousness always precedes form. Focusing the consciousness on the external environment and/or the internal changes gives birth to rightness of movement. That is why there is not a single mirror in our rehearsal studio, which might otherwise be used for checking the beauty of mere form.

That means that as the external environment that leads the dancer’s internal consciousness, the stage art, music and costumes must also achieve a very exacting level of artistic completion, doesn’t it?
As you say, for me the lighting, music and stage art are equally important elements along with the dancer’s movement. Because they are means that are used to help create that invisible “something” we give expression to on the stage. This may be a rather abstract way of describing it, but I think in terms of a sort of “bridge” that is strung between us dancers, and the audience. And the among the elements used to create that “something” in the time-space of that bridge are the stage art, music and the movements of the dancers. It is not the case that the movement of the dancers is the “main” element and the music and stage art a “sub” elements, rather they are all three “sub” elements supporting the invisible bridge between us and the audience. And the important thing is that this “something” is created and appears in each performance. That said, however, there are definitely times when that process is successful and other times when it does not succeed as well.

Since that invisible “something” cannot be seen, we wonder how you reach consensus with the other dancers.
Well, I would say that “consensus” is something that is reached gradually in the rehearsal [practice] studio. When I begin working with the dancers on a new piece, on our first day together I start with a short lecture on what I want to do in the new piece. And once I have communicated in that way my general idea, then we begin working on the actual physical movements, which I call “Trial #1.” The Sankai Juku dancers are of course thoroughly familiar with this process now, so when I say, “OK, let’s start Trial #1,” they know what it means. And they know that then it changes and develops naturally from there to #2 and #3. That process is repeated over and over with concentration by the dancers in the studio until a consensus is reached, or until I myself am convinced that something is right. There are times when everything goes well from the start and a five minute scene may be worked out to successfully in the course of one day in the studio, but at other time we may spend a whole day working and not even one minute of a scene is worked up to satisfaction. Still, the Sankai Juku must have the patience and the concentration to keep focused internally and keep working like that in a studio with no mirrors or music.
  Through this careful and patient exchange, consensus is gradually reached and the movements of a scene become fixed. In the end, the choreography that we arrive at by this method is so certain that we can time ourselves dancing a particular scene with a stopwatch in a studio with no music and the time will not vary by more than 30 seconds. This precision comes purely from our breathing and our concentration as we dance. If there is a variance of more than 30 seconds, the dancers can feel in their bodies that something is not right.
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