- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

It is a rare experience to enter another world, a world with a different aesthetic and time frame as well as a distinctive perception of the human experience.

The packed audience for Wednesday’s performance of “Kinkan Shonen — The Kumquat Seed” absorbed the world of Sankai Juku, the Butoh-inspired group from Japan that strips the Kennedy Center Opera House’s stage — and its performers — down to bare essentials.

The vision that unfolds is often spare and austere, at other times startlingly dramatic, and it is all the creation of its founder, Ushio Amagatsu, who, the program notes, “directed, choreographed and designed” the entire production. That sweeping assignment includes the sound, which ranged from almost inaudible whispers to pop music; the striking set, a series of mobile panels encrusted with carving; and the lighting, often dark and mysterious but concluding with a heavenly vision of a man hanging upside down from a red banner, turning endlessly, seen against a glowing column of azure blue.

There were indelible images: a man crashing to the floor on his back; mouths wide open in silent cries; a figure in a whirlwind of motion scooping sand up to his mouth, then blowing it out spasmodically or throwing it wildly into the air. Four nearly naked men in heavy, trailing skirts swing their hips as the skirts fall toward the ground. Two figures, their white bodies looking like Grecian sculptures, wrestle fiercely, somersaulting while thrashing about.

That does not begin to describe the evening or its overall effect. The audience, perhaps including many who did not expect such a cerebral experience, paid rapt attention. For 100 minutes, with no intermission, there was a vision of a world that exists beneath the surface of things. One entered an alternate space where mysterious events were left unexplained but not unexplored. Among many unforgettable images was the transformation of a performer from a dwarf to a released spirit swooping joyously across the stage, skirts flying — a standout.

In another striking sequence, a dancer tightly held to his chest a gorgeous peacock, its colorful tail trailing on the ground. The bird, obviously mesmerized, was compliant until he was released with a great flapping of wings.

On a previous visit to Washington, Sankai Juku brought a feistier peacock that turned out to be a grand scene stealer. The image when it was released to soar in a great arc up to the nearest balcony was unforgettable.

With or without peacocks, Sankai Juku brings us to a place that is both enticing and unique.

***

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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