By Tom Sellar
By Emily Warner
By R.C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By R. C. Baker
By Alexis Soloski
By Tom Sellar
Its startling to realize that I first saw Eiko and Koma perform in 1976. They came out of nowhere, as far as I was concerned, and very shortly after showing their White Dance: Moth, they left town. Since I had never heard of that radical form of Japanese contemporary dance known as butoh, it would have meant nothing to me to know that, in their native Japan, they had studied briefly with butohs founding fathers, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, and were trying to develop their own style. I only knew that I had never seen anything like White Dance.
It took place in a corner of the Performing Garage, lasted an hour, and was mesmerizingly inscrutable. Time slowed to a crawl. I remember Eikotwenty-something and as delicately beautiful as a woman of old Edo in an Ukioye wood-block printseated on the floor, her slender arms probing the air like tendrils seeking light, or seaweed drifting in oceanic currents. Gradually, balancing on her tailbone, she began to move her legs in the same way, her toes like separate little creatures. I remember Koma emptying sacks of potatoes on the floor. When they performed in New York the following year and every year thereaftereventually settling in this cityI made sure to be there.
Almost 40 years have passed since the two met at Hijikatas studioa couple of young people whod been involved in the student uprisings of the 1960s and suddenly thought the new, intense form of dance might be worth investigating. This spring, at Danspace, theyre inaugurating their Retrospective Project, which will culminate in 2012. The program is flexible. At Saint Marks, the audience is shown a fine video, Dancing in Water: The Making of River (camera by David Geary, Nuria Olive-Belles, and Douglas Rosenberg); excerpts from White Dance; and the new Raven.
Seeing one of Eiko and Komas first works on the same program with their latest, I realize that even a 25-minute excerpt from White Dancehas more elements, more changes, than their later pieces. The music is found and Western: the medieval Agincourt Carol and a Bach harpsichord concerto. Traces of their experiences in the 1970s with German modern dance crop uponce, Koma runs and jumps; once Eiko lifts a leg to the side and holds it there for a second. They speak, cry out. Koma kicks Eiko and makes her collapse. He crashes to the floor, landing on his knees. Yet the piecewith its slow passages, its earthiness, and its primal imagerycontains the seeds of their later, pared-down dances. All the duets theyve done since then have resonated with the poem printed in the program for White Dance.The poet, Mitsuharu Kaneko, spoke of an earth so dim and quiet/That even dewdrops could be heard dropping/Onto the bed of grass from the twigs below.
Almost all their dances take place in a particular landscape, which then influences everything they do. The titles are often clues to the pairs single-mindedness: Grain, Thirst, Tree, Land, River, Snow. . . . In works like these, they merge with their environment, often struggling to find their way to one another, like blind animals clumsily seeking to mate, or beleaguered humans trying to prop each other up or reach a new place. They move in such tiny increments that, watching them, you can seldom predict the destination of a particular gesture; your own breathing slows down. Some unknown hunger or thirst seems to propel them. Whether they perform onstage or out of doors, we see them buried in earth, emerging from leaves, tangling with driftwood in watery currents.
At the beginning of Raven, Eiko is lying on a beige canvas floor, edged with dried grasses that stick out on either side like fringe on a rug. Its mottledso is the backdropscorched or burnt in places. Black feathers lie scattered beside her. Very slowly, in Kathy Kaufmanns early-morning light, she negotiates rolling onto her side and arching until her face is toward us. A lock of her black hair falls and merges with the feathers. Shes wearing a yellow sarong, and her breasts are bare. Robert Mirabal, the Native American composer and performer, seated on the floor, starts to play single, muted beats on the large, shallow drum hes been holding (the score is adapted from one he composed for Eiko and Komas Land in 1991).
Eiko curls sharply in, and now its her spine were contemplating, noting how one shoulder blade, because of the way shes lying, appears more prominent than the other. Slowly she lifts a leg straight up, and her toes fan out; her foot looks like the head of a snake (can it see us?). Mirabal sits with his back to her, sensing her, his gravity proclaiming this a ritual. He starts to chant syllables in a high clear voice.
How uncanny Eikos flexibility is. Every joint seems to bend deeply. Her leg gropes past her shoulder. She can crouch on her knees and crawl alongchin to the ground, as a flat as a turtleholding a bunch of grass in each hand. In this desert, creatures die and other scavenge their corpses for food. The dark object lying on the ground turns out to be something like a dried skin that she can laboriously pull over herself or lay across Komas shoulders.