Stargazing. It’s got to be among the oldest of human pastimes, and it remains one of the simplest ways to blow your mind. The stars are reminders of the distant past and far-off future, of timeless celestial beauty, and of the vast, unknowable universe. All you’ve got to do is look up.

The final image in Tobari, the latest evening-length work by butoh company Sankai Juku, is a group of men standing with their backs to the audience, their knees slightly bent, their arms lifted, and their hands reaching toward a scrim studded with stars.

From beginning to end, Tobari is a mystical, ritualized response to the awesome patterns of the universe. The dancers aren’t dancers so much as shamans, and they don’t dance so much as they sway, shuffle, melt, and dart. In the white robes of high priests, they bow their bald heads and probe the air with their fingers. They expose their palms in supplication or surrender, and when they stab the space with sudden gestures, puffs of white powder rise from their pale bodies.

The subtitle of this dance is As if in an inexhaustible flux, and both time and space do seem to fluctuate in Tobari, as do the lighting and the layered musical score. In one slow passage, the dancers crouch in a group, swaying almost imperceptibly. They remain in the same position long enough that the eye relaxes, lingering in the negative space between their limbs, reading them as if they were one organism. It’s like watching anemones in shifting tides—they mesmerize, they lull, and they appear to exist outside the bounds of normal time.

Yet all is not slow and soothing. In one section, figures dash past each other on diagonal lines, kicking up their long skirts as well as the fine sand that covers the stage. In another, they struggle to stand, collapsing back to the fetal position in a series of bumps. One moment they are like stars themselves: arms stretching out, radiant in orange skirts and golden light. The next, they are slithering on their bellies like primordial crocodiles, or lying on their backs with their mouths wide open and their legs floating inches above the floor, like babies stillborn into some post-apocalyptic nightmare.

The real gift of Tobari is that, like the stars, it is a mirror of the human experience, from birth to death and beyond. It is dignified and mysterious, fearsome and awe inspiring, and there are no answers.


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