Sankai Juku | Credit: UCSB Arts & Lectures

First, darkness. Slowly, an illumination of limbs begins to take form: a blossom of legs floating skyward as the silhouette of a phantom dancer edges its way across the stage. The effect is lulling, coaxing the viewer into a meditative state from which imagery and sound swirl around five powder-white bodies draped in asymmetrical cloth. A fortress of fossilized sea lilies shimmers gently above them. 

Last Friday and over the course of 90 minutes, Japanese Butoh dance company Sankai Juku entranced UCSB Arts & Lectures audiences with the U.S. premiere of Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land, a contemplative depiction of life’s cyclical patterns told in seven seamless chapters. From the pedestrian to the otherworldly, choreographer Ushio Amagatsu juxtaposed finite movement with haunting facial expressions to paint a staggering portrait of nature’s unrelenting push forward and the emotional implications of persistent change. 

This was dance theater distilled down to a purity of movement so raw, the viewer was forced to do little more than relent to each unnerving wave of kinetic consciousness. People fidgeted in their seats. Some stood up and walked out. But most sat transfixed, breathing audibly to the rhythm of transcendental bodies trembling on a stark stage.

When the lights dimmed, the transformation was complete, and the audience jolted to their feet in rousing reverence. Next to me, an older gentleman sporting a leather jacket and a hoop earring wiped his brow and let out a low whistle. “That was quite the therapy session,” he said, and everyone around him laughed in relief.


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