Matters of Life and Death


It’s a cool evening in the St. Mark’s churchyard; a breeze stirs the leaves on the old sycamores. Behind me in the semicircle of folding chairs, a man with a cell phone urges a friend to join him for this free “avant-garde” performance: “It’s not ‘we’re gonna dance’—like dance dance . . . ” At this point, Eiko and Koma—white-painted limbs and faces, black fur tunics that look dug up—have been lying motionless on the ground for at least 20 minutes.

With Tree Song, as with any piece by this remarkable Japanese-born duo, you learn to calm your pulses, while a woman lights aromatic candles around and nested in a pile of white flowers. Lilies, candles, a curious mound of earth, the still figures, the nearby graves—is death the theme? Who can be sure? Struggle seems always to be Eiko and Koma’s deepest story. They move so slowly and with such difficulty that you often lose track of what you think they’re trying to achieve.

Are Koma’s knees twisting to one side? Yes, eventually. There are white chrysanthemums in his hair. After a long time, Eiko lifts a clawed hand, and as if on cue, composer Georgia Wyeth starts to play a spare, circular melody on the piano. As Eiko tries to raise her head, as Koma gradually rolls toward her, as they clumsily raise their rumps and press their faces against the dirt, they seem pinned to the earth. They crawl on their bellies with no help from their arms—beached fish trying to thrash toward water. It’s a massive effort to kneel and gaze falteringly upward. Every partial rise is followed by collapse. At some point, Sharon Dennis Wyeth begins to sing, almost inaudibly. Later there are words, but I can’t hear them.

Over the course of 50 minutes, the enigmatic relationship between these people bores into your heart. They tangle clumsily, this one’s face burrowing into that one’s neck or shoulder. Eiko blindly bites petals off the flower in Koma’s hair, and later, pushing herself onto the mound, spits a tiny storm of white fragments into the air. She slides onto him in what passes for an embrace. He laboriously carries a pile of flowers, lays them on top of her, and sinks down beside her. He pushes his head under her and tries over and over to push her into a standing position. Owen Hughes makes the lights wax and wane.

An ambulance screams down Second Avenue. The singer caws suddenly. Eiko and Koma’s mission becomes to get to a big tree and press against it. It’s hard to stay upright. He pins her to the trunk with more flowers. She crawls away, then returns. These people, in whatever stage of evolution or disintegration, think and move as if through fog, with only traces of instinct and almost erased memories to guide them.

The cell-phone guy would have no problem labeling Clare Byrne’s Tetrapod “a dance dance.” At intermission, a gray-haired couple just starting to explore downtown performance tell me they’re enthralled by the expert, athletic dancers whipping and hurtling past them, almost touching front-row spectators in the Flea’s wide, shallow space. In last fall’s Rend and Sew, Byrne moved away from making bumptiously witty theater pieces like Wet Blue and The St. Patrick’s Pageant. Tetrapod takes her even further into “pure dance,” signaling its intent by starting off to a Mozart quartet (“The Hunt”).

Her choreography doesn’t stress just the four-leggedness the title implies, but a seductive dexterity of the whole body. In the opening moments, Byrne sits on Jeffrey Peterson, their legs tangled, while they touch one another in various spots with patty-cake deftness. Meanwhile Sharon Estacio and Meredith Mandel are on all fours side by side, swaying in unison, rolling their hips placidly, falling and coming together again, heads temporarily stuck to each other’s shoulders.

In the boisterous, fast-paced, occasionally wary unison and contrapuntal dance games these four play, all their limbs tend to swing around at the same time. This gives a tremendous impression of vigor, but it’s nice when, amid the jumps and turns, swoops and staggers, the adventurous lifts, and the lavish use of the torso (especially in a luscious solo for Estacio), Byrne and Mandel keep their arms still for a while and let their feet star.

Mozart takes a break, and sound designer Stefan Jacobs slides us via the “chink” of finger cymbals into Rahsaan Roland Kirk live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (not the shock you might expect, since Kirk begins with what sounds like a latter-day bergamasca). The effect of different musical selections is part of Byrne’s strategy. For the second part of the evening, late arriver Adriane Fang opens the curtains over the three big windows, lighting designer Erik Bruce eases in some red, and the original four reprise a good chunk of the first section to Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, appearing even juicier but no less precise, before they venture into precariously braced leaning duets. Kirk’s music (a lazy take on “Balm in Gilead”) returns for an especially fine sequence of duos, trios, and a solo for Peterson, plus a beguiling earlier trio by Byrne for herself, Fang, and Nicholas Leichter, which she has reworked and woven cleverly into this new vividly performed, unabashedly “dancey” piece.