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November 9, 2015

Watching Sankai Juku: I want to climb up Sleeping Bear Dunes in bright sunlight

By Siobhan McBride

Editor’s note: Siobhan McBride is a visual artist 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. Siobhan saw Sankai Juku, the Japanese Butoh dance company. Below is her (sometimes fictionalized!) response to the performance.

A thread of sand pours from an inverted glass pear suspended over the stage. The movement of bodies finding their seats, shuffling in damp coats, fans the thread, causing it to billow and shudder. The stage floor is covered with a layer of sand.

The performers look ageless, androgynous, naked to the waist with white powdered skin and smooth heads. Their movements are both chaotic and mathematical. They twitch like the dial on a bathroom scale. Their limbs trace paths, the growth of a vine seen in stop-motion, the scuttle of invertebrates. At times their bodies are contracted like an infant reptile flexing new muscles against the shell. Their dancing reveals unpredictable and dangerous appetites, bubbles of gas coming out of solution in their veins.

sankai juku

My body becomes similarly constricted, mirror neurons blazing. I am a potato expanding under duress against hard dark granules. My shoulders tense and rise towards my ears, hands clenched, legs tightly crossed. I sense choked blood flow, whitening flesh. It seems that my breath is audible to everyone. The music is persistent. I wish it would pause so I could listen to sand crunching, swishing fabric, muscles groaning.

I want to climb up Sleeping Bear Dunes in bright sunlight. Feel my legs as the sand gives way and smell the chemical sweetness of burning skin. The promise of sandwiches in a bag, cheese sweating in tin foil, cold lake water on the other side.

Sand continues to accumulate on the stage floor in a smooth pile. I am alert to the audience’s micro-movements. Next to me, a man touches his face, on the other side a bouncing knee and croaking stomach. The dancers are in groups, moving as limbs of the same creature. The irises of their eyes appear very large and black. Their gaping mouths, black and tongue-less, broadcast soundless screams.

sankai juku

After the encore, the audience pools in the foyer. Some are ebullient, full of praise, others look bleary. Moments earlier I had left the restroom with the back of my skirt tucked high into my tights, revealing through sheer fabric my utilitarian cotton underwear. I am appreciative of the notification from a stranger.

Walking down the cement pathway leading from the center, I stop and crouch to pick up four smooth white pebbles. They are tiny, smaller than knuckle bones. Surreptitiously, I slip them into my mouth. They’re cool inside my flushed face. They taste like minerals, quartz, grass. There is a German artist, suffering from schizophrenia, who puts objects, pieces of wood or cork, minute balls of aluminum foil into his body, ears, mouth, ass. A compulsive and protective gesture to prevent perceived penetrating forces or, I imagine, the draining of certain invaluable essences. R. Crumb’s brother would ritualistically pass long pieces of string through his digestive tract over the course of days. An act of purification? When I was a kid I used to eat small pieces of napkins, bits of dead skin, tiny bites of my raincoat sleeve, crayon shavings.

In the car afterwards, I am anxious and fitful. I want to kick a bale of hay until the grasses are spread many acres wide. I want to be at the bottom of an enormous dog pile of actual dogs. I want to chug gallons of lake water until I throw up or get drunk. I begin to imagine Indian rug burns being performed up and down both arms and legs by robust women in white peasant headdresses. After a while these urges disintegrate and I finally start the car.

Photos of Sankai Juku are courtesy of the artist.


Siobhan McBride was born in Seoul, South Korea and currently lives in Ann Arbor. She received her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She was an artist in residence at Yaddo, Jentel, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program, Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been exhibited at NURTUREart, the Pelham Art Center, Eight Modern, and this past winter at Miami Project with DC Moore.