Dance: Beautiful? Yes. Thrilling? Noh

Sankai Juku Sadler's Wells, EC1 Gilles Jobin ICA, SW1

Ushio Amagatsu is not a man in a hurry. Long minutes elapse before you even clock the fact that he is not an alabaster statue, mounted high on a plinth on the far wall of the stage. Even then it's only the merest stirring of a wrist, and then a slow unfurling of a forearm, followed by a gradual thawing of the smooth white ribs and neck that tell you he's a thing of living flesh. If the word "quick" were still in use as the opposite of "dead", you'd be tempted to assign him to the latter.

Amagatsu is the most celebrated exponent of ankoku butoh (or "dance of total darkness"), Japan's chief contribution to 20th-century dance which grew out of anti-American protest in the late 1950s. Imprinted with the crabbed, anguished forms of the Hiroshima victims and harking back to the pared-down symbolism of Noh theatre, the result was a kind of body sculpture in which the performers attempted to distil extreme states of being: terror, exhaustion, pain, birth, death. In the words of its founder, butoh is "a corpse which stands upright with the energy of despair". It's no holiday.

But to judge by the showing of Amagatsu's group Sankai Juku, on its first visit to London in seven years, much of the deliberate rawness has gone from butoh since those early days. In 1959, there was uproar in Japan when someone simulated the rape of a live chicken on stage then strangled it to death between his thighs. In 1999, these smart second generationers are the toast of the Parisian fashion crowd and their bald heads and white garb - though still ostensibly based on the traditional swathes of sheeting - would look perfectly at home on a catwalk. In their current piece, Shijima ("The Darkness Calms Down in Space"), even crucifixion is presented as an elegant and modish way to go.

But if you can swallow the idea that style rules OK and don't study the content too closely, then what you've got is something very beautiful indeed. The stage floor is covered with golden sand, the walls with a spectacular plaster bas-relief of naked bodies, the muscles making shadowy indents on the surface, the hollows of flesh forming mysterious mounds and curves. Bathed artfully in different kinds of lighting, this monumental catacomb provides constant interest for the full 90 minutes of the piece.

Which is more than can be said of Amagatsu and his five male clones, whose shaven heads and whitened skin have the effect of effacing not only their gender and racial identity, but to some degree their humanity as well. These wraiths from outer space present immaculately synchronised formations, but with such excruciating slowness that you could close your eyes for five minutes and barely miss a thing.

There are memorable effects, such as when the dancers appear as water- lilies in huge disc-like skirts, their hands making intricate, tendrilled movements to the far-off tinkling of bells; or as warriors, all hunch-shouldered machismo, until suddenly deflated by a series of dull thuds in the score - an unmistakable reference to bombs. In the final scene, all five bodies are hauled up by the arms on wires and left endlessly suspended as if on invisible crosses in mid- air - an impressive, but also offensive coup de theatre.

Yet for all these remarkable stage pictures, the absence of emotion made it hard to respond in anything but an abstract way. Shijima left me cold. And its quasi-religious symbolism struck me as symptomatic of the current fad for espousing any and every spiritual tradition, just as long as it's weird. I read somewhere that "butoh can mean everything, or nothing". In this case, I'd plump for the nothing.

There was much more honest flesh on view at the ICA, courtesy of the London Mime Festival, in a thought-provoking show with the title A+B=X. This may have had something to do with the fact that we saw one naked man (Gilles Jobin) and two naked women (the gloriously named Nuria De Ulibarri and Ana Pons Carrera) but in the end ceased to notice the difference.

Looming out of the dark, what looked like three bare backs were projected with an amusing film of three gurning male faces stricken with photo-booth embarrassment. Only when real live hands emerged to scratch the celluloid men's chins did you realise that the film was being screened on upturned bare bottoms. And unembarrassed bottoms at that.

The show went on in this witty and provocative vein to explore the nude in art, making many an art-college reference along the way - one dance featured the famous glass coffee-table nude, another (using clever chiaroscuro lighting) mingled dancers' limbs to look like Matta's disembodied organic forms. One of the women balanced spread-eagled on Jobin's heels to resemble Michelangelo's ideal male. A+B equalled a very interesting evening indeed.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk