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Sankai Juku in Kinkan Shonen at Sadler’s Wells

Posted on November 18, 2008

I do wonder what they did to the peacock. In Kinkan Shonen, a 1978 work by Japanese butoh group Sankai Juku, a man dances with a live bird tucked under his arm. It seems to be in a trance. Even when he lets go of its neck, it sways its head from side to side, but doesn’t peck or struggle, let alone scream. For a peacock, that’s not natural.


Sankai Juku was founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975. The company, whose name means “workshop of the mountain and sea”, is based on butoh style, with white-painted performers moving slowly and precisely. Kinkan Shonen, which translates as “Kumquat Seed”, was the company’s first major production. The current revival dates from 2005. Amagatsu dominates his company, credited with direction and design as well as choreography. For Kinkan Shonen, the stage is framed by patterned wooden screens. In shadow, the patterns look like elaborate carving; as the lights brighten, they turn out to be hundreds of fishtails.

It’s an episodic work, a series of solo and group dances. A young man in military costume, with shorts and peaked cap, writhes his way to a silent scream. The peacock soloist shuffles and stretches, finally putting the bird down. It looks about, and then wanders across the stage, lurking by the wings for much of the performance. The show ends with a man hanging upside down from a kite, turning slowly on his rope. He might be meditating; he might be hanging from a butcher’s hook.


There’s a strong grotesque element here. Early butoh was a post-Hiroshima art form, its performers suggesting survivors of a great trauma. Amagatsu’s scenes are more elaborate. One man appears tucked up inside a kimono. Crouching down inside his robe, arms folded, he looks dwarfish. Scampering about, carefully keeping the illusion, he pulls faces at the audience: a silent laugh, hastily switched off.


Even creepier is a quartet for four men in stained sarongs and facemasks. Their features are covered with pinkish-white clay, squeezed into ridges. It’s as if they were made from plasticine, and their creator had scratched their faces off, leaving them blind, scarred and featureless. The images, then, can be memorable. As a performance, it’s harder to endure. The style is infinitely slow moving, dancers inching their way through their steps. The pace evens out any sense of variety. There should be a contrast between the kimono-dwarf and the peacock dancer, for instance, but it’s blunted by both slowness and alienation. These white-painted people are always distant, always chilly.


Between the alienation and the lack of variety, my mind kept wandering to other questions. Is it healthy for a dancer to hang upside down for that long? Doesn’t the dwarf crouch cause pins and needles? Most of all, how did they keep the peacock quiet?

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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