The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Ushio Amagatsu
©Yuji Arisugawa
Premiere: 1978 at Nihon Shobo Kaikan (Fire Department) Hall, Tokyo
an overview
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
The unending challenge of butoh artist Ushio Amagatsu, a leader in the international dance scene for over 30 years  
After going independent from the Dairakudakan butoh dance company led by Akaji Maro in 1975, Ushio Amagatsu formed his own company Sankai Juku. In 1977, this small company with just four male dancers gave their first public performance under the title Amagatsu Sho, and in 1978 presented the work titled Kinkan Shonen (The Kumquat Seed) that would established their name in the dance world. By 1980 they were already giving their first overseas performances in France. In their first year in Europe they won acknowledgement with performances at the Nancy Festival in the spring, the summer Avignon Festival and the autumn Sigma Festival, Bordeaux. With those performances the Sankai Juku name and the term “Butoh” rapidly spread throughout Europe. In 1982 the company entered an agreement with Théâtre de la Ville, Paris to do joint productions of new works. Since then these co-productions have continued at a pace of about one new work produced every two years. Recently, more than a quarter of a century after bursting onto the world dance scene, Sankai Juku was awarded the 2006 Asahi Performing Arts Grand Prix for the work TOKI - A Moment in the Weave of Time and the latest work TOBARI - As If in an Inexhaustible Flux continue to be presented to high acclaim. Until now, Sankai Juku has performed in approximately 700 cities in Europe, Asia, North America and Oceania.
It is now almost 30 years since Colette Godard of Le Monde wrote that watching Sankai Juku at the Nancy Festival for the first time was a two-hour journey of such intensity the viewer fairly forgot to breathe. We spoke with Ushio Amagatsu about his philosophy of butoh and the creative journey he has continued steadily all these years, neither accelerating nor slowing.

(Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki)

Sankai Juku first went to Europe in 1980, and two years later in 1982 you had already received an offer by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris to co-produce your new works. At the time you must have been surprised by the boldness of such a grand offer to a young private company coming out of the Far East.
I still remember very well the day I received that offer. In fact it was in 1981. The Director of the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, Gerard Violette, came with a consultant, the late Thomas Erdos, to the theater in Lyons where we were performing Kinkan Shonen. Their offer was for us to perform Kinkan Shonen and one more new work. The new work was of course to be a co-production with the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris. But—and thinking back now this is really laughable—I didn’t even know much about the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris at that time, so I told them I wanted some time to think about their offer. Years later, Violette told me that I was the first one who had ever told him I needed time to think about a commission offer from Théâtre de la Ville, Paris.
  Looking back now, I never imagined that our co-productions with Théâtre de la Ville, Paris would continue this long. There have now been 12 works produced there in 26 years, and to be honest, I don’t think that all of them were great successes. Still, they continued to offer the commissions, and for that consistency I am truly grateful to Mr. Violette. By continuing to offer those commissions, he gave the support that we needed to develop as a private company without any base of our own. Honestly speaking, I doubt that Sankai Juku would still exist today were it not for Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and the rest of the French arts support system. Although it is mere speculation, I would say that if I had not made that decision to go to France in 1980 but had stay in Japan and tried to continue my career there, I might have given up on dance early on.

Mr. Violette retired last year, and he has been replaced by a young director from theater in his 30s. Will this change the relationship between Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and Sankai Juku?
At this point, we are still scheduled to produce a new work for the 2010 spring season. And fortunately, I feel that we will be able to continue our co-production relationship under the new director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. However, it is not as if we have a franchise contract with the Theatre, and there have never been any guarantees concerning future, not in the past or from now on. It is always a matter of objective judgment on the part the director after seeing the results of each new creation the artists present.
  Those judgments are not made on the basis of any personal relationships with the artists involved. No matter how long a relationship of co-productions may have continued, if the latest production is definitely not up to the Theatre’s standard of quality, there will be no new commission. In fact, I know of several young companies that have received commissions from Théâtre de la Ville, Paris but were not able to present works that lived up to the Theatre’s expectations and, as a result, there was no new offer after that. It all depends on the quality of the works. It is a severe and clearly defined world.

That places a lot of responsibility on the director who makes those decisions.
That’s true. And that is why they place extreme importance on going to performances to see, to listen and to meet artists. They believe in their responsibility as professionals and trust their own eyes and ears to find works that they are truly convinced have the quality required for their programs. In light of this, I believe it is truly meaningful that Sankai Juku has been able to continue its series of world premieres of new works at Théâtre de la Ville, Paris since 1982. No matter how outstanding your works may be, it is still difficult for performing arts staged in the Far East to be noticed by European directors. It believe that it is only because we have had the opportunity to perform our works regularly in Paris that Sankai Juku has been able to find venues for our performances all over the world.
  It should also be noted that the theaters in France, regardless of whether they are in Paris or the provinces, they are all supported by the taxpayers. So, if a theater continues to present works that are not up to par, the director becomes the subject of criticism from the audience. There is a clear system of responsibility in France. You have the artists who create works, directors who judge their worthiness and the audience who decide whether or not they like what is presented to them. And for that reason, I believe that I have been able to focus on what I should be doing as a creator, which is to concentrate on my art without the distractions involved in the difficulties of bringing it to the audience.

The work Kinkan Shonen that you performed most often in Europe at that time involved a solo part where you dance holding a live peacock and stage art that included a wall with a thousand and more tuna tails nailed to it and numerous other unprecedented devices. How did professionals in the European dance world react when they first saw Sankai Juku’s performances?
In France at the time, the format for contemporary dance was mainly a series of separate pieces of about 15 minutes each that were strung together in a suite-like form, which was basically the style of “Modern dance.” What suddenly emerged in contrast to that in Germany at the time was Pina Bausch’s “Dance Theatre.” She introduced a form that was completely new, something that had not existed before in the dance world, characterized by full sets of stage art and long, continuous works that often ran for two or three hours.
  It was just around the time of this emergence when we first performed at the Nancy Festival in 1980, and in one of the first interviews I was asked if our dance was close to Dance Theatre. It was true in some respects that Sankai Juku’s works resembled Dance Theater, in that we made full use of stage art and designed spaces, and also that one work lasted a couple of hours. However, my approach to dance was different from Pina’s. My point of departure was definitely butoh. So, after that, whenever I was asked that question in interviews, I made a point of bringing up the names of the founders of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ono, and saying that what I am doing is “Butoh.”
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