Review: Slow Poses and Clouds of White Powder

Men with shaved heads, their bodies caked in white powder, move with exacting slowness. Their motions and poses are often inscrutable, but their faces are sometimes telegraphic, contorting into open-mouthed expressions of amusement or agony as readable as the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Sankai Juku, the all-male Japanese company, which has been touring the world for nearly 50 years with a popularized version of the Japanese style Butoh, returned to the Joyce Theater on Tuesday for a two-week run. The group’s 80-minute show, “Kosa,” is a bit of a greatest-hits program, a series of excerpts strung together from older works. Sankai Juku is usually known for its spare yet spectacular set design, but “Kosa” has almost no décor. As a result, the choreography and essential vision of the artistic director, Ushio Amagatsu, stand exposed, and the exposure is brutal.

If only, along with the sets, the company had discarded its music — always the worst part of the Sankai Juku experience. But the relaxing-classical Muzak is still here, cut for cheap effect with distorted electric guitar or the screams and booms of rockets and explosions. It’s as if we were in a massage parlor where a dystopian movie is playing.

You can still appreciate the skill of the performers: the precision of their private sign language, a hand-jive heavy on thumbs, claw shapes and pointing fingers; the spindly elegance of their statuesque positions; the even glide of their runs. The lighting (by Genta Iwamura) is subtle and nuanced, so much so that all the slow posing can seem in service of the lighting design, providing bodily shapes and surfaces to illumine.

Akihito Ichihara in “Kosa.”Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The stitching together of the excerpts is also skillful, an overlapping structure that maintains the flow. But for me this had the discouraging effect of extending the seemingly interminable aspect of each section and the evening as a whole. Sankai Juku has long lacked the transgressive power to disturb or the numinous mystery that the best Butoh has. When moving quickly, the dancers give off clouds of white powder that hang briefly in the air, but little that Sankai Juku does has any lasting emotional or metaphorical resonance.

And so when four of them cluster like a cabal, smirking as they raise their skirts to flash some leg, finger-painting on one another’s faces, breaking into silent hysterical laughter and pointing at the audience, they seem like the Three Stooges stripped of knockabout humor. And when the soloist proceeds glacially across the diagonal of the stage, gazing upward, his face eventually forming a rictus of pain, it isn’t mesmerizing or profound or time bending. It’s just tedious. “Kosa” is dull.

Sankai Juku

Through Nov. 5 at the Joyce Theater;

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