Noh Drama and Eiko and Koma Travel Slowly Into Dreams

Japan pervades two dance performances

The audience at Japan Society relishes Boshibari(or Tied to a Pole), a kyogen (the comedy form traditionally interspersed between Noh dramas to cleanse the mind with a little laughter). This play is famous, and, even without translations of the dialogue, the carefully plotted physical comedy would tell you just what’s going on. A well-to-do man (Shirada Hiromi) is convinced that whenever he goes away, his two doltish servants break into his cellar and gorge themselves on his best sake. His solution this time is to get one servant, Jiro-Kaja (Shigeyama Ippei), to demonstrate the pole-fighting he’s been secretly studying and then, with the help of the other, dopier servant, Taro-Kaja (Shigeyama Doji), to yoke him to his pole (many foiled attempts). That accomplished, the master binds Taro-Kaja’s arms behind him. The fun comes when the two servants gradually figure out how to collaborate on getting the sake anyway; the contortions they go through and their resultant drunken carryings-on are hilarious, and wonderfully performed by these two cousins, scions of a famous family of kyogen performers.

The week before the members of Kashu-Juku Noh Theater performed, Japan Society launched an exhibition called Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (it runs through June 12). I wish I’d arrived early enough to see it before the performance. It purports “to meld traditional styles with challenging visions of Japan’s troubled present and uncertain future,” and the fetching postcard advertising it shows Makoto Aida’s Harakiri School Girls, a vivid montage in which girls in plaid uniforms gleefully plunge long knives into their vitals, and blood spouts like red flowers.

Japan’s “troubled present” acquired new meaning after this exhibition was arranged. From the stage before the Noh performance, Japan Society’s artistic director, Yoko Shioya, announced a special Concert for Japan to raise money for the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund —an all-day series of events on April 9. See japansociety.org/earthquake.

Katayama Shingo of Kashu-Juki Noh Theater as the living spirit of Lady Rokujo in Aoi No Ue
Courtesy Kash-Juku Noh Theater
Katayama Shingo of Kashu-Juki Noh Theater as the living spirit of Lady Rokujo in Aoi No Ue
Slow cookin': Eiko and Koma in Naked: A Living Installation
Anna Lee Campbell
Slow cookin': Eiko and Koma in Naked: A Living Installation

Details

Kashu-Juku Noh Theater
Japan Society
March 24 through 26
Eiko & Koma: Naked: A Living Installation
Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street
646-731-3224, bacnyc.org
March 29 through April 9

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Like Noh and Japanese butoh, the works of Eiko and Koma unfold slowly. But until you’ve seen the two of them perform, or lain nose to the ground to watch a snail cross a patch of grass, you may not have fully experienced slowness. Their moving and beautiful Naked: A Living Installation doesn’t just transform a sixth-floor studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; it alters your breathing and your sense of time, as well as prolonging anticipation. Will Koma’s foot actually reach Eiko’s knee, or will she begin to draw away from him before that happens?

The exhibit in the adjoining studio prepares you. If you look deep into any of the five squared-off, chest-high black columns there, you’ll see videos of the pair in earlier dances that they performed unclothed. They lie in water, on leaves, upended against a chain link fence. Their images swim in a shallower tank that looks like a fishpond adjoining another that displays a curling assemblage that might be burnt paper.

Naked attracted around 8,000 viewers during its premiere season at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center (which commissioned the work). Throughout November 2010, Eiko and Koma were on view in their installation—an important part of the pair’s ongoing three-year retrospective—six days a week during museum hours from (11 a.m. to 5 p.m). At BAC, they perform Tuesday through Friday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (with a rest break). The fact that the event is free encourages people who may want to pay only a short visit, although, after watching Eiko and Koma for a while, you may not be sure what “short” is.

To experience Nakedup close and not just through holes in the heavy paper walls that surround the living installation on three sides, you enter a created “room.” Those walls and its paper floor are strewn with black feathers and pitted with holes made by scorching. In the middle of the space, ringed by dark earth, Eiko and Koma lie on a pile of feathers. High above them, suspended bundles of black strips stir in the breeze from an unseen fan, altering the patterns of light. The lighting itself (adapted by David Ferri from the design at the Walker) slowly morphs—sometimes flickering—from cool and dim to golden or white and back again. From the darkness above, water drips intermittently onto the soil.

In almost all Eiko and Koma’s pieces, they merge with an environment—growing into it, feeding off it in some way. At BAC, their pale, dirt-marked bodies stand out among the dark feathers like mushrooms on the forest floor. Closer to them than usual, we see every tiny move—the way a feather gets caught between two of Eiko’s fingers, the slight settling down of Koma’s buttocks. You could count the vertebrae on their spines. Viewers come and go, finding seats on the single row of benches or standing behind them or sitting on the floor. Some draw what they see on paper provided in the antechamber.

The performers are naked in the most profound sense of the word. They’re hairless, except for the black tangles on their heads. For a few uncomfortable seconds, staring at Eiko’s lean haunch, I see a skinned animal carcass—as if she once had fur. When they’re still, they look dead, discarded. Although naked, they don’t cater to the prurient. Koma twists subtly in and out of an almost fetal position, and only Eiko exposes the front of her long, sinewy body.

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