Japan’s Sankai Juku dance company had made an international reputation for its stunning images of life and death. Thus for the moments it took Yoshiyuki Takada to plummet six stories through the sunny Seattle afternoon air, some in his audience were able to believe they were witnessing art, not death.
The 31-year-old dancer was hanging by his ankles from the city’s 80-foot-high Mutual Life Building when the rope parted. He did not scream, giving hope to some of the 1,000 onlookers that a hidden restraint would arrest his fall at the last heart-stopping instant. Others thought the falling figure, which held a perfect tuck position until impact, was merely a cleverly substituted mannequin.
But death, real death, it was—the conclusion not of some artistic gesture but of a promising young life. Yoshiyuki Takada had grown up in a suburb of Tokyo and studied philosophy at college. In 1975 he met Ushio Amagatsu, a master of Butoh, the ritualistic dance discipline also called dance of the dark soul. Under Amagatsu, Takada and several other students formed the ensemble Sankai Juku. Shaving their heads and bodies, powdering themselves stark white with rice-flour makeup, they threw themselves into startling impersonations of animals and grotesquely beautiful scenarios of birth, death and spiritual transcendence.
By the ’80s Sankai Juku had become the first superstar Butoh ensemble. After a triumphant tour of Europe, the group provided one of the most striking nonathletic images of the 1984 Olympics with an outdoor presentation that suspended four dancers like spiders, headfirst from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Los Angeles was followed by stops in Washington and New York, where most critics raved about what one called the group’s “unique voice.”
The sudden tragedy in Seattle united performers and audience in shock, and then grief. As Takada’s three co-performers were hauled quickly back up onto the roof, a Seattle psychiatrist who witnessed the accident ran up to their fallen comrade and tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation. When the doctor stood up several moments later, he himself was dusted with white powder. Troupe leader Amagatsu was comforted by another member of the crowd, a woman casually dressed in sandals and skirt, who rested her hands protectively on the near-naked wraith. Audience and performers wept together.
In Sankai Juku’s art, death was simply the inevitable existential consequence of being born. In the Seattle accident it was the result of a used rope and perhaps of negligence. Rather than carry their own rope for the hanging event (which had previously played without mishap at more than a hundred other venues), the group obtained appropriate lengths of three-quarter-inch hemp from local promoters. A primary requirement was that the lifelines be secondhand, because new rope twirls as it pays out. Before the Seattle performance, a spokesman for the dance company told one reporter, only one of the four ropes had been stress-tested. Yoshiyuki Takada’s was not.