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A Conversation with Ushio Amagatsu, Artistic Director of Sankai Juku
Interview

By Kyoko Yoshida

An interview conducted in Japanese and translated into English by Kyoko Yoshida, Director, U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network of Arts Midwest on behalf of Pomegranate Arts for the 12-City North American tour of __Kagemi. © Yoshida: All rights reserved

Yoshida:

Sankai Juku was founded in 1975, more than 30 years ago. For all these years, you have consistently created new works and toured extensively throughout the world. I am honored to have this opportunity to interview you on behalf of the Sankai Juku’s North American tour management, Pomegranate Arts, and the 12 presenters and their audiences of the upcoming North American tour.

First, would you tell us how you encountered dance and Butoh, and what kind of impact Butoh had on you.

Amagatsu:

While studying theater in my youth, I encountered ballet and other dance forms. This was in the late 60s to early 70s[1], and as time went by, the non-verbal, physical methods of expression remained with me and in this context, I encountered Butoh. The Butoh had such impact on me because it had completely different ways of using the body from ballet and other forms of dance that I had been trained in. I was also strongly drawn to Butoh because of its peculiar approach towards creating works. I feel like I just naturally melted into the whirlpool of the creative energy of Butoh.

Y:

You founded your own dance company, Sankai Juku, because you had a specific theme and style that you wanted to pursue. Please share with us your initial vision in founding Sankai Juku.

A:

I had been a member of Dairakudakan[2] which then (and now) consisted of a large number of performers, and focused on expressing the “proliferating” energies. In contrast, I wanted to create a company that consists of a small number of dancers and explores the possibilities of expressions that can be attained by “the less”.

Y:

The common understanding of Butoh is that the art form was founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, and that Dairakudakan, Sankai Juku, Byakkosha, etc are the few leading companies to immediately follow the founders. Yet, after 30 years, Sankai Juku has established its own dance world, even though Butoh may be the starting point or a method. Please elaborate on this.

A:

While I respect and pursue the basics of Butoh, founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, I was determined to establish “my own Butoh”, by confronting my “self”, just as the founders did so to establish the art form (genre) of Butoh. I thought that it was important not just to inherit Butoh from the founders, but simultaneously to pursue my own path, because the background/social context of the work, individual experiences and characteristics (qualities) are all different.

Y:

There are themes and images in Sankai Juku’s work, such as Life, Death, and the Universe that are often reflected on by performers who seem to represent neutral existence. In creating Kagemi, what was the main inspiration?

A:

Not just Kagemi, but in other pieces as well, I consider human beings and human nature to be the basic themes of my works. I think that what urges me to create new works are those unresolved elements in my mind, such as the mystery of an individual existence which possesses its own physical body but relates to everything around it by influencing and being influenced, or that of my own physical body that exists here and now but simultaneously encompasses much longer time preceding my existence.

Y:

Is Kagemi an ancient word for Kagami (mirror)? I could not find this in my dictionary, but “Kage” means shadow, “mi” means to see in Japanese. Please elaborate on the subtitle of the piece, “Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors”.

A:

Although it is not officially admitted in the academic world yet, some dictionaries mention that the Kagemi is the possible etymological origin of Kagami (mirror). I found it very inspirational if “to see one’s shadow” came to mean “mirror (to see oneself)”. It’s very epistemological. In regards to the subtitle, “Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors”, when we look back into the history of the forms of mirrors, there first were “water mirrors” that people had to look down into, bringing their bodies to level positions. Then, when people started to craft mirrors themselves, they were able to reflect their images standing up in vertical positions. So, it encompasses the significant change for the human body (physicality) from its level/horizontal position which is associated with relaxation and sleep to its upright/vertical position, which is for standing up and being active. Furthermore, I found it interesting to think about the changes in the concept and recognition of looking at oneself in reflection, from the water mirrors which were very fragile and ambiguous, then, the bronze mirrors which still were not very accurate, and then to the glass mirrors which we “think” are reflecting the accurate images. It is full of metaphoric images if you think what is on the other side, or beyond the thin layers of the surface of the mirrors, or what I refer to as the “flip side of the membranes of the water, metal, and glass”.

Y:

I had a privilege to work with you nearly 20 years ago in Tokyo, and I remember your hand-written sketches for different scenes of the dance piece you were working on. Do you usually draw sketches of the scenes first? Would you share with us the process of making a work, especially Kagemi?

A:

Yes, I still do my sketches for new works. Also, I always write down words or sentences that interest me, and come back to such records after some time to review and select which ones may work for the new piece. The notebook that I keep such records randomly contains not just ideas for choreographies but also for music, stage sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Since I have been creating a new piece constantly every two years[3] I have a system of downloading these elements into the new piece periodically. In regards to Kagemi, I found both in my notebook and in my memory from the late 70s, specific remarks about a piece created by an Ikebana (the art of Japanese flower arrangements) master, Mr. Riho Senba, a friend of mine. The piece consisted of hundreds of fresh lotus leaves pinned on the ceiling of the exhibition hall, and I can never forget the extraordinary impression standing underneath these leaves, made on me. It remained strongly with me. My memo also read, “I want to work on a piece based on this impression.” Then, in the year 2000, after 28 long years from the event, I finally tried to do this in Kagemi. As you see in the program notes of Kagemi, I refer to the inspiration as “Lotus leaves—inspired by the meeting with Mr. Riho Senba.”

Y:

In Kagemi, dancers interact—touch each other and react to the touch with humorous facial expressions. This kind of expression seems new to your work. Would you comment on this?

A:

Actually, there were some attempts for the similar kind of expressions in my other works. For an example, in the Kinkan Shonen, there is a scene in which the performers exchange energy and such subtle actions as sighing to become “compound entities” which reflect the others as oneselves. (I referred to this scene as “make-up in mistake”.) So, I think that this particular scene in Kagemi belongs to the same genealogy.

Y:

In one of the recent review articles of Kagemi, a critic referred to the Sankai Juku aesthetics as “The East seen through the Eyes of the West.” Do you think this is because you have toured the world extensively, and are based both in France and Japan?

A:

”The East seen through the Eyes of the West” is a profound proposition to me, but this was a perception of a critic who saw my work. I do not have a particular intention to direct my works based on such a specific point of view. I think my basic concepts for creation are “the differences” and “the universal”.

Y:

In a recent interview, you refer to an image of a scale, searching for a state of equilibrium. In one plate is culture, with all its distinct differences, the other plate is the universal. I think that to search for the equilibrium balancing the conflict within is one of the characteristics of traditional Japanese values and culture. This may be one of the primary reasons why Sankai Juku remains distinctively Japanese in aesthetics to me. In the era of globalization, what do you think about future possibilities for Japanese culture?

A:

When I spoke about the image of scale, I was referring to the importance of the differences among cultures; that such differences are the factors which form and develop individual culture; and on the other end of the spectrum, the importance of the universality of human being, I consider these two concepts to be the basis for my creative works. I spend a lot of time outside of Japan, but each time I return to Japan, I always observe distinctive “Japanese-ness” even in contemporary Japanese culture and society which is significantly Westernized. I think that such “Japanese-ness” will continue to develop as distinct cultural characteristics.

Y:

When I first saw Sankai Juku’s work over 20 years ago in Tokyo, I was astonished with the inimitable beauty of “acceptance”. It drew a sharp contrast between the ballet techniques which emphasize the extension—as if to conquer the space around oneself. In contrast, Sankai Juku dancers moved their fingers, bent their ankles seeming to “accept” everything around the space and even to respond to the subtle wave or particles in the air. Maybe this is one of the reasons that the audience is so enthusiastic about your work—because we are tired of the aggressive mentality of contemporary and/or Western/American society.

A:

For me, Butoh is “a dialogue with the gravity.” If the European/American dances are based on the concept of “being free from the gravity,” maybe we can say that in contrast, my dance is based on that of “sympathizing or synchronizing with the gravity.”

Y:

What is your secret to maintaining your body as a dancer and adding depth to your dance for well over 30 years? Do you have specific trainings or a regimen in your daily life?

A:

When I need to go on performance tours or start working on a new piece, my daily schedule becomes quite demanding. So, I make an effort to live as quiet a life as possible for the rest of the time. In terms of the trainings, as I grow older, I mainly swim quietly and practice stretching in order to maintain good physical conditions.

Y:

I understand that you directed your new young member to perform the Sankai Juku’s 2nd piece, Kinkan Shonen (premiered in 1978) last year. Are you interested in raising successors?

A:

Yes, I am. Regarding last year’s Kinkan Shonen, I thought that it was important to convey the sensibility of the work I created when I was at the age of the young performer. Also, I realized that I need the physical strength and toughness of young performers that can take the demanding choreography when I start to think about the new work.

Y:

I believe that it is very different to dance yourself, and to choreograph for other dancers or to direct operas.[4] Would you share with us the challenges and benefits of working or collaborating with other dancers or artists in different art forms? Do the experiences of your work outside Sankai Juku inform your work with Sankai Juku?

A:

My work with Sankai Juku always serves as a base, so, it’s rather that the Sankai Juku’s works are reflected upon other projects outside of the company. I think that’s what people expect from me. Of course, the method is different in each art form, but when I worked on a new opera, Three Sisters, what I tried was to juxtapose and reflect on the three different expressions on one stage, straight play, deformed jest, and abstract dance. I’d like to consider my work in the other genres as more reflections than challenges.

Y

: As you travel and work internationally, you meet with many artists from all over the world. We hear that you have an ongoing friendship with some great artists such as Pina Bauch. How do artists influence each other?

A

: It is a great pleasure to meet with other artists, but I rarely discuss works or artistic directions with them. Perhaps because it is a profound experience of the contemporaneousness to meet with the fellow artists who share commitment and discipline toward artistic creations, it is a matter beyond specific artistic style or expressions.

Notes

  1. There was a strong movement of diverse, experimental performing arts in Japan in the late 60s to early 70s.
  2. Dairakudakan was founded in 1972 by Akaji Maro, who remains as the leader of the troupe today. The founding members included Ushio Amagatsu as well Isamu Osuga (of Byakko-sha), etc.
  3. Theatre de la Ville in Paris has been commissiong new works to Sankai Juku once every two years for the past 20 years consecutively.
  4. In 1989, Amagatsu was appointed the artistic director of the Spiral Hall in Tokyo where he directed Apocalypse (1989) for a Brazilian dancer, Ismael Ivo, and Fifth-V (1990) for the U.S. dancers. He also directed Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle in Tokyo (1997) and the world premiere of Peter Eotvos’s opera Three Sisters at Opera National de Lyon in France (1998).