A lone dancer enters, body taut, hands formed into talons, a mass of potential energy. Soon his slow contortions usher in four skeletal fishermen, all gleaming skulls and protruding bones.

    One-by-one their long cane poles put a dozen floating obolisques into motion. The tranquil waters have been stirred, and the stage of the Power Center has become the dreamlike realm of "Yuragi: In a space of Perpetual Motion," a performance by Japan's Sankai Juku Butoh dance troupe.

    The series of alternatingly tranquil, absorbing, and puzzling vignettes played to standing ovations on both November 1 and 2, as the alabaster-painted bodies of the group's five dancers struck a cord with local audiences. The performers, led by Ushio Amagatsu, who founded Sankai Juku nearly 20 years ago, shuddered and writhed through an enigmatic dreamscape over 90 minutes divided into seven ethereal movements.

    Butoh has a scant thirty-seven year history as an avant-garde form of dance theater, and as such it continues to defy definition. The word itself refers to the dance of a primarily agricultural society: Bu means dance and toh means to stamp the ground. (Precursors to traditional Japanese dance included agricultural rituals in which such stamping served to help "lock" a divinity into the ground to ensure a good crop.) Since its birth, Butoh has attempted to challenge the restraints and social conventions of contemporary Japan, by continually experimenting, not only with content but with the very modes of expression. To date, there are over 30 established troupes, including the American Dappin Butoh, all as divorced from traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater as they are from Western modern dance.

    Sankai Juku, the Butoh troupe most widely seen outside Japan, is known for a style that relies more on tranquillity than some of the group's more frenetic peers. Amagatsu's troupe first gained notoriety in the United States for a piece that had performers slowly uncoil their tucked bodies while suspended from ropes 80 feet above city streets. (On their initial tour, during a Seattle performance in 1985, equipment failure caused one of the dancers to fall to his death.) Under Amagatsu, who is the group's choreographer, Sankai Juku has become known for a creative framework which draws on mysticism from ancient Japanese eras or on elements of Buddhism. Nevertheless, this troupe, as with Butoh in general, has no orthodox vocabulary of gesture, and its very uniqueness can at times inhibit comprehension. In fact, the Power Center performances were marked by an air of disconnectedness that did little to invite an intellectual ordering of the event. Instead, the dancers seemed to turn their energies inward, leaving audience members very much to their own devices in trying to read meaning into what they witnessed.

    The enthusiasm the performance generated relied more on the virtuosity of the spectral performers than on the coherence of the event as a whole. In pieces such as "Underneath the Highest Sky," four men cavort in maize- colored, dress-like robes, to the rhythms of music by long- time collaborator Yas-Kaz. The music in this movement has a stark, industrial sound, and the rapid, dust-raising movements are elemental, ordered circles and crosses. By contrast, the subdued "From Shore to Opposing Shore," presents Amagatsu in a dusty purple robe (the 46-year-old says that the changes brought on by aging encourage him to use stage costumes rather than exposing his body) flowing slowly but inevitably across the mouth of the stage. The choreography in many instances presented a paradoxical sense of movement in nearly sculptural dances. The result was an otherworldly display of gathered energy; muscle and sinew taut, ribs, jaws and limbs straining to break free of flesh, all exhibiting a disciplined body language that at its best defies description. Even the curtain call was eerily captivating, the slow-motion bobbing and weaving of the performers was one of the evening's highlights, again signaling that it was the engrossing technical style of the dancers that captivated, more than the dance itself.

    As enigmatic as any part of the performance was the staging. A pair of large, white rabbits nestled two stories above the stage-floor in translucent bowls, part of an otherwise geometrically minimalist set. The environment, as a whole, was in stark contrast to the dancers, who tensely prowled a sand-covered floor amidst large, hanging obolisques. Molded into perfect circles, these shapes were at various times raised, lowered, or set in motion, to create a menacing overhang, a tranquil pond, or a chaos of movement. The live rabbits, a source of much audience speculation, were the choice of designer Natsuyuki Nakanishi, a noted Japanese artist who worked with Butoh's originators. The rabbits served to link "Yuragi" to early, historic Butoh performances which also incorporated live animals — though you would have had to talk to the designer to be aware of that link.

    The Butoh style emerged out of a number of challenging stylistic experiments, performed by Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, and Akira Kasai. The three of them rebelled against contemporary Japanese modern dance, which was merely an imitation of modern dance in the West. The result was the 1959 creation of a completely new dance style in a performance entitled, "Kinjiki," based on the novel, Forbidden Colors, by Yukio Mishima. There was a point in the performance, before a small audience of about 200 people, where a frantic Hijikata slaughtered a live chicken, purportedly causing members of the audience to faint. Hijikata was officially outlawed as a "dangerous" performer by the prevailing powers in Japanese dance, and Butoh had begun.

    Despite the fact that Butoh's pioneers tried to distance themselves from Western modern dance, the influences of German Neue Tanz ("new dance") and 1960's "happenings" were evident in Hijikata's early Butoh works. Hijikata was a mesmerizing performer, and he found support among the Japanese artistic elite in the tumultuous 1960s. The renowned novelist Mishima supported Hijikata's experimental dance theater and provided, among other things, calligraphy for the emblematic banners of Hijikata's Ankoku Butoh-Ha (Black Dance Theater). By the 1970s, Hijikata's Butoh style was fully developed; it was, perhaps, best described by dance critic Roku Hasegawa with the word, ikei, meaning a kind of bizarreness. This bizarreness was exemplified by Hijikata himself, with his shaven head and face painted white to hide human expression, an appearance American audiences have come to expect from all Butoh performers.

    In the 1970s and 1980s more than twenty different Butoh groups developed in Japan including Dairakudakan, Byakkosha, Hakutobo and Sankai Juku. All of these have absorbed Hijikata's style but have since developed their own unique performances. Hijikata continued to choreograph and direct long after he stopped giving public performances, working mainly with female Butoh performers seldom seen outside Japan. His death in the mid- 1980s left an absence that contributed to a splintering of styles, as the students he and others inspired went beyond their teachers in search of their own voices. Kazuo Ohno, already in his 50s when he was dancing with the much younger Hijikata, continues to perform internationally past the age of 90, most often appearing with his son. Akira Kasai, another early practitioner, experimented to express the inner self and his view on the cosmos and life. Kasai was not only a talented dancer but also a great teacher, and his "Butoh of consciousness" lives on in his many students.

    Because Butoh tends to rely on its dancers' individualities, revivals of Butoh compositions pose great difficulty. One of the innovations of Amagatsu's Sankai Juku was the standardization of Butoh repertoire, which enabled Butoh performances to be repeated. In some ways, Sankai Juku is a far cry from Hijikata, whose works lived and died in a single performance. Amagatsu says he learned this method through collaboration with the Théatre de la ville, and in fact the group spends a lot of time in France, previewing a new work there every two years. They will return to Europe to work early in 1997.

    At the Power Center, "Yuragi" ended in much the same way as it began. Amagatsu gives way to the sudden emergence of four marbled dancers. This time they come floating in from the wings on their sides, hovering in a fog on initially unseen slabs of black rock. Their subdued movements are disrupted when Amagatsu comes rushing back, in flight from some nameless terror. In his movements, the terror subsides as he makes his way back to the same spot from which he began the performance 90 minutes before. While "Yuragi" was not Sankai Juku's most engaging creation, the Ann Arbor audience's response to it was evidence of a continuing worldwide fascination. The end of the 20th century has seen the growth of a rare Japanese cultural export: a contorted dance form, whose highly trained artists tense every muscle in order to present a refracted, misshapen world of strangely evocative images tinged with unsettling humor.

    Sankai Juku is touring throughout North America in 1996. Sponsors of the performances in Ann Arbor were the University Musical Society, the Center for Japanese Studies, and WDET Public Radio.

    Brett Johnson is a graduate student in Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota, and art director at Michigan's Center for Japanese Studies.