This illustrious 35-year-old troupe of eight bald Japanese men powdered white from head to toe is known for practising butoh, “the dance of darkness”. But, as with so much Sankai Juku produces, the 2008 Tobari: As if in an Inexhaustible Flux (at the Joyce for two weeks before heading west) is butoh lite: the dance of dimness.
Butoh grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It imagines consciousness as an organism, like a flower except not so lovely. The torso, with its capacity to shrink and expand, is the locus of action, imploding like an excruciatingly slow rewind of a mushroom cloud.
The pace of Tobari, though, is middling, as if troupe choreographer Ushio Amagatsu worried we might get bored. Worse, the music – an improbable mix of the cosmic and the sappy by Sankai Juku regulars Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa – sets this pace, so the dancers seem to be responding to external cues, not moving from internal impulse. As for those devolving torsos, Tobari replaces them with busy hands – the most extroverted part of the body.
The men behave like Marcel Marceau. One man wafts his hands in a pretend stream. Another pinches an invisible wire between thumb and forefinger. Someone else slides open a glass door. A trio snatches at invisible bugs. Instead of revealing motion where you expect stasis, the dancers create stasis – imaginary objects – where you expect unobstructed flow, empty space.
There are passages of dance, in which the performer, not the surrounding air, is transformed. But the pantomime gets our attention because it is so precisely rendered and so off the wall. What does a universe chock-a-block with stuff have to do with “inexhaustible flux”?
It is possible I am missing something – or everything. The word tobari means “curtain” – dividing outside from inside, concealing the sky itself at night. Perhaps the pantomime functions as the curtain that blocks our view of the true nature of things. Then I should be happy to feel irritated. It means I got it.
In any case, everyone else on opening night seemed pleased, standing and clapping until each of the performers took their very slow bows and the real curtain descended. () Until October 17, www.joyce.org