Sankai Juku at The Joyce

As I sat in the theater watching Sankai Juku’s TOBARI – As If An Inexhaustible Flux, I kept thinking about the relationship between outer and inner space. This otherworldly, entrancing work, which plays at the Joyce through October 17th, is absolutely transporting and hypnotic.

Completely covered in white make-up and moving with slow precision and grace, the performers create one ethereal world after another, gradually flowing into and out of one sequence into another. Its like watching the movement of the stars in the heavens – which is appropriate as one of the major design elements is a backdrop filled with stars. Not only is there a backdrop filled with stars but there is a large white disk center stage, settled amidst the sea of fine white sand, that occasionally lights up and mirrors the starry backdrop. As above, so below.

The intimacy of the Joyce was a boon the performance – I was seated about 3/4 of the way back – and could still see the details of the set and performers, I could hear the sound of their feet gliding over the sand and their completely expressionless faces.

The only misgiving I have was in the music which felt kind of new-agey and kitsch. It undermined the depth of the visuals and what I assume is the goal of Butoh, to induce in the audience a kind of highly-aware meditative state. I couldn’t help but suspect that this might be Butoh-lite, for a Western audience that is used to having things explained to them clearly. But personally, as a neophyte to Butoh, and not being well-versed in Eastern religions – I found Tobari very satisfying. I was moved when, at the end, the performers collectively reach up into the starry background, as if preparing to launch themselves into the void. I kept thinking that these performers were intrepid explorers of the cosmos, both the inner world of consciousness and the outer world of space/time.

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