YOU CAN scarcely tell, as the light gradually comes up at the beginning of Shijima, whether the figure posed high up against the back wall is a man or a statue. Only very slowly does Ushio Amagatsu give away the secret, by moving first his arms, then his head, and finally his whole body. This extremely gentle, tardy movement sets the tone for the whole piece, and one benefit of it is that when, eventually, Amagatsu momentarily flicks his hand, or even runs across the width of the stage, the contrast of pace has a startling effect.
The theme of the production seems to be the relationship of life, death and creativity. I say "seems" because the title gives nothing away (it translates as "the darkness calms down in space") and the programme note is so obscure that it only confuses the issue.
But Amagatsu and his four acolytes enact episodes that relate to the repeated patterns of a man's back, which are spread right across the walls behind and beside the stage, and there are indications of aspiration, exhaustion and crucifixion. A struggle to survive and to make lasting artefacts is implied throughout the action.
Previous visits by this group, Sankai Juku, have revealed similar devices: the shaven heads, the white paint on face and body, the white or pale costumes, the minimal movement. Again there are seven scenes (is this a magic number for Amagatsu?) lasting about 90 minutes, with no interval.
This time there is less of the amusing eccentricity of earlier shows (the peacock strutting around the stage in Kinkan Shonen, the pool which men fell into in Unetsu), but the sparseness of Shijima compels attention and urges the exercise of imagination. Sand is a motif: spread on the floor, kicked up by their feet, or falling on them unexpectedly from above. Think, maybe, of ashes to ashes - but that could be misleading.
Is this all too enigmatic? One or two spectators who left quietly during the evening's early stages apparently thought so, but at the end there was loud cheering from those willing to accept the highly individual and allusive work. Except for the musical soundtrack by Yas-Kaz and Yoichiro Yoshikawa, which provides an atmospheric background and marks the change from one section to another, Shijima is virtually a one-man show with Amagatsu as author, director, choreographer, designer and chief performer. Even the four men who form a supporting group seem like extensions of Amagatsu, not exactly duplicates but close to it. What turns them into disciples of this man? Presumably his intensity and originality, which are what appeal to audiences too.
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