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Dance review: Sankai Juku comes to Southern California

October 29, 2010 | 11:43 am


In the world of Japanese butoh dance, the micro and the macro are fluidly interactive. Small gestures and subtle changes of angle and attitude count for much. In an ideal performance, an audience is transported, without warning or easy calculation, from the tangible to the symbolic and cosmic. Many such transformative moments took place Thursday at the Granada in Santa Barbara when esteemed butoh company Sankai Juku performed “Tobari -– As If in an Inexhaustible Flux,” presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures.

The modern dance company moves to the Irvine Barclay Saturday night (with a different program) to kick off JapanOC, a season-long festival of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

“Flux” is an operative word, as is tobari (the Japanese word for a fabric veil used as a partition) in this evening-long work directed, choreographed and designed by Ushio Amagatsu. He founded the all-male group in 1975 and achieves timeless, fashion-bucking relevance. Uniformly dressed in white robes and shaven heads, the dancers –- Amagatsu, Seminaru, Sho Takeuchi, Akihito Ichihara, Ichiro Hasegawa, Dai Matsuoka, Nobuyoshi Asai and Norihito Ishii -– became humble pieces within the whole of “Tobari,” each dancer sure and strong individually, but blended into the group persona.

They moved gracefully through an often slow but elegantly conceived series of gestures, from the subtlest nuance of hand or arm motions to tautly synchronized ensemble choreography. Opening with ethereal upward (or heavenward) body-encoded aspiration, the piece moves to earthier, primordial sections, with writhing on the ground (with eerie precision). At times, the atmospheric musical component was distractingly lightheaded and New Age-colored, at odds with the minimal lyricism of the dance aspect. Mostly, though, “Tobari” soared at its intended pace and altitude, mixing the ascetic with the sensual.

Following a passage in which dark-robed dancers work into a more agitated and antic climax, Amagatsu himself emerged dramatically in a lone spotlight and performed a solo that felt like a summation of the work and a compact expression of butoh spirit. His solo, set to silence, alternated between elegiac, pained and ecstatic expressions of being and motion, in slowly unfolding ways.

Finally, other dancers joined the stage, in meditative undulations, gradually receding back into the starry sky backdrop. Humanity and the cosmos yearned to be aligned for a minute, one of those magic butoh moments in the house.

JapanOC, which presents Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture performances primarily in Orange County in partnership with Carnegie Hall, continues through April.

-- Josef Woodard

Sankai Juku, JapanOC festival. Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. Saturday. $36 to $61. (949) 553-2422,

Photo: The company performs “Tobari -– As If in an Inexhaustible Flux." Credit: Sankai Juku