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November 9, 2015

Watching Sankai Juku: How do we stay vulnerable to art?

By Russell Brakefield

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell saw Sankai Juku, the Japanese Butoh dance company. Below is his response to the performance.

In my writing life there are sometimes moments of terrible silence, moments where nothing comes. That old fear settles in—that I will never write another poem again. I tell my students that these moments pass. Stick with it, I say. Find a routine that works for you! Or I tell them to go out and experience other art. And alone in my office I try to reassure myself as well. I read. I go to the museum. I see a show. All things pass. This too.

But worse than this feeling of unproductivity is the occasional emotional silence that accompanies it, a feeling that I am unable to receive art, let alone make it. I feel, in these moments, as though my relationship to the world has been fractured. I stand before a gallery wall and tilt my head. I shuffle to the bar before the show ends. I leave stacks of books abandoned. In these moments, I can’t rightly see the world around me and therefore can’t carve out a place within it. I’m no longer capable of wielding the broad axe. But these are the bad times, and I’m often lifted from this watery stupor in surprising ways. As part of the UMS Artist in Residence program I recently attended Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, and it pulled me up from underneath.

In the opening piece UMUSUNA, a single dancer works over the stage. He moves back towards a string of sand filtered through the ceiling. The music is subtle, arresting. The dancer’s limbs lift in a controlled strain. Two pans hang on each side of the stage, the stage itself then some sort of balance. Throughout the show the pans lift and sag—the themes of being and time hang delicately behind the dancers. The performance is punctured by movement. The dancers move slowly, sometimes so slow and with such rigidity that it is difficult to watch. But as the performance unfolded I found myself deeply engaged. The dancers pushed slowly through each piece, some barely lit, some blown through with primary color. One piece featured dancers gaping at the sky, their movements semi-synchronized. Another featured dancers in the fetal position and swaddled in white. Each body shifted and lurched on the stage like an ultrasound or an ex-ray of an egg. From my place in the audience I shifted as well and language uncorded suddenly inside my skull.

sankai juku

In her essay Goodbye to All That, Joan Didion talks about being young and therefore more open to emotional experience. “When you twenty-two or twenty-three,” she writes, “you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.” She is talking about New York City, standing on a corner eating a peach, falling in love with the smell of trash and lilacs. But somewhere beneath this is an argument that art too is best experienced by the young, the wild at heart. I don’t buy into the idea that art is best consumed by the young or—despite what pop music tells us—that the best living is done in our twenties. But I do wonder what the trick is to staying open in this way. How do we continue to experience art as though we are finding it for the first time? How do we, as another writer puts it, work to hold tight the basic truths we know? I often return to an image of my younger self devouring books in a university library, writing frantic verse. I’d never go back there, but I would give a lot to still feel that truth so well—that if I ever stopped writing I might cease to exist.

I’m embarrassingly uninformed about dance, but in preparation for the show I did some reading on Sankai Juku and Japanese Butoh. The internet told me that the term Butoh means “dance of darkness,” and I seemed to understand the essentials— avant-garde, slow movement, etc. But when the show started I was drawn intensely and immediately to the control of the moments on the stage, to the colors, to the stage setting. And the work seemed to correlate so directly with my own aspirations on the page as well. Later, scribbling at my desk, I would revel at the rigid, protracted movements I’d witnessed and how they seemed to implore a sense of torment, a disruption. I was enamored with the way the dancers enacted a sense of control and formal acuity while also attempting to disrupt, to deepen the resonance of the themes inherent in the show—origins, time, self, etc.

The poet Carl Phillips writes, “this resonance can be frustrating for the reader who wants experience to be translated; but poems tend to instead transform, not translate […] their business, as it were, is to transform experience so that our assumption about a given experience can be disturbed and, accordingly, our thinking about that experience might be at once made more complicated, deeper, richer.” UMUSUNA worked towards this type of transformation. Here language was the body, the bodies collapsing together in poem. Meaning was both separate from and dictated by form, afforded by form and challenged by it. I was encouraged by this performance to embrace form as an opening, as a sort of awakening, and a type of time travel. In the audience and after the show, I felt rattled. I felt in some small way that I was being re-formed from the pieces of the writer I had previously been. I felt bent back to the moments in my life where I was most vulnerable to art.

sankai juku


I read in the program, as the lights dimmed and the performance began, that UMUSUNA is a word that relates to one’s birth place. But more than that, the program reports, “Umusu embodies the concepts of everything and nothing, existence and nothingness. Na evokes the land, the ground/soil, and one’s native place.” I thought about where I come from. I thought about my native place in art, in life. As the single dancer from the first piece left the stage, the performance opened to a frantic second piece. A group of dancers spun across the sandy plates on stage, everything tinted red. The music raged. The dancers separated and linked up again. I leaned forward in my seat. In that moment I may not have been thinking of my work—of poetry or writing or form or influence—but I felt deeper parts of myself sliding open. I felt time go wobbly. I could say that it is simply through new experience that we awaken again and again to ourselves and our potential as artists. This show affirmed that for me, sure. But perhaps I will also be forced to reexamine my understanding of form and the role it should play in my writing. Maybe to push form to the forefront of the work and let subject and theme bow to it, maybe this can help unwrap the cold heart, tow out the muse from where its buried deep in that native place, keep us young, restore our faith.

Photos of Sankai Juku are courtesy of the artist.


Russell Brakefield received his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor where he teaches writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller and as the managing editor for Canarium Books. His most recent work appears in The Southern Indiana Review, Hobart, and Language Lessons: An Anthology by Third Man Records.