Mirror ball

Sara Manuelli speaks to Japanese choreographer and set designer Ushio Amagatsu, whose dance company has won legions of fans

In Kagemi, the lotus flower is floating over the surface of the water, which acts as a reflection, a mirror. Kagemi is, in fact, thought to be the origin of the word mirror in Japanese, and the work explores the ‘relationship with the image behind the mirror…’, says Amagatsu. If this all sounds a tad abstract, it is largely due to Amagatsu’s charming, but broken English and perhaps to a ‘different’, more hermetic, way of viewing meaning and myth. He is reluctant to explain too much about the piece and he is right, since his work is best seen than discussed.

Asked how he copes with juggling the choreographer, designer and dancer role all in one, Amagatsu says it was initially an economic necessity, but he also admits wryly that a lot of it has to do with ‘being in control’. He doesn’t see the roles as distinct and his way of working is encompassing, something that might recall that other visionary of theatre who excels in transcending boundaries, Robert Wilson.

The lighting design is also fundamental to his work and every tableau is precisely and suggestively lit. Amagatsu emphasises his different choice of working: ‘I don’t normally think how to light. Instead, I think how to put darkness, and how much of it.’ His sets are thus based largely around this chiaroscuro atmosphere. For Kagemi, the dancers often stand in a circle of black lava sand, meant to represent the eclipse, while the slightly raised main stage has one corner turned up, symbolising ‘the many layers of the surface’.

The costumes – also designed by Amagatsu – are usually virginal, lacy white tunics, except for a disturbing scene in which a menacing trio wears black-and-red graffiti-style gowns.

At the premiere of Kagemi in Paris, the company and Amagatsu received a standing ovation. Certainly, the Parisian audience loves him and his ties with the city lie not only in keeping an apartment there, where he lives when not touring, but also because Paris and its Théâtre de la Ville was the first to give him his lucky break in 1982. Barnier is keen to stress what a great reception Sankai Juku gets everywhere – even in countries such as Brazil where you wouldn’t expect the usually ebullient audience to sit still through an hour and a half of hypnotic rhythms and excruciatingly slow but perfectly poised movements. Often fans get so wild after a performance that they cheer and clap for ages, inscribing I love you messages in the sand used as a scenic device.

Next month, Sankai Juku will be performing Kagemi at Sadler’s Wells in London, something Amagatsu is particularly looking forward to. Both Barnier and Amagatsu relish the eclectic crowds the company manages to attract, ‘women in fur coats and punks with tattoos’, further proving how his work is effective across cultures and classes.

As Amagatsu says, ‘We are a Japanese company [that works in] two ways; one is the difference, since we represent our own culture, but the other is the universality of our work – that can speak to all.’

Kagemi by Sankai Juku shows at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1, from 10-14 June – performances start at 7.30pm

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