Japan's Sankai Juku Baldly Stands Traditional Dance on Its Head—and Leaves 'em Gasping

UPDATED 07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

As one British dance critic put it, "More foreign than Sankai Juku they do not come." And indeed, with their shaved heads, white powdered bodies and sinuously enacted themes of evolution and birth, it's no wonder that these Japanese performers have been likened to everything from extraterrestrials to nonhuman lumps of clay. The traditional stage is hardly their only setting. Sankai Juku (headquartered in Tokyo and Paris) has performed around the world in public parks and farmers' fields, in temples, outside a piano bar, and swinging by their feet from museums and office buildings. This month, the five-member troupe is making its U.S. debut at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles and the Pepsico Summerfare Festival in Purchase, N.Y.

Though Sankai Juku (meaning "school of mountain and sea") appears quintessentially Japanese, its style, called Buto (literally "stomping dance"), blends the avant-garde with Japanese folk dance and traditional theater, to "bring dancers back to the zero starting point," as one member explained, performers shave their heads in the manner of Buddhist priests and cover their bodies with dead-white makeup like Kabuki performers. Uncharacteristically Japanese, however, is the dancers' naked musculature and uninhibited emotional expression. "In Japan the body is considered inferior to the spirit," explains the troupe's Tokyo manager, Sachio Ichimaru, "but to Sankai Juku, body and spirit are one."

The moving force behind Sankai Juku is Ushio Amagatsu, 35, who choreographs the dances. Born in Yokosuka, the son of an electric company engineer, he studied theater, classical ballet and Martha Graham techniques and in 1975 spearheaded the formation of Sankai Juku as an independent group. Married to a French hairstylist, Amagatsu is father of a newborn daughter, Leia. The rest of the performers, ranging in age from 28 to 34, are bachelors.

"I would like people to simply blank their minds," Amagatsu has urged, "and not to see with their eyes only, but with their whole being. Unfortunately, people like only what they fully understand. But once you understand something, it becomes a thing of the mind only. It no longer touches the heart."

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