It’s 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 butoh’s 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 Eiko—twenty-something and as delicately beautiful as a woman of old Edo in an Ukioye wood-block print—seated 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 thereafter—eventually settling in this city—I made sure to be there.
Almost 40 years have passed since the two met at Hijikata’s studio—a couple of young people who’d 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, they’re inaugurating their “Retrospective Project,” which will culminate in 2012. The program is flexible. At Saint Mark’s, 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 Koma’s first works on the same program with their latest, I realize that even a 25-minute excerpt from White Dance has 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 up—once, 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 piece—with its slow passages, its earthiness, and its primal imagery—contains the seeds of their later, pared-down dances. All the duets they’ve 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 pair’s 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. It’s mottled—so is the backdrop—scorched or burnt in places. Black feathers lie scattered beside her. Very slowly, in Kathy Kaufmann’s 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. She’s 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 he’s been holding (the score is adapted from one he composed for Eiko and Koma’s Land in 1991).
Eiko curls sharply in, and now it’s her spine we’re contemplating, noting how one shoulder blade, because of the way she’s 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 Eiko’s flexibility is. Every joint seems to bend deeply. Her leg gropes past her shoulder. She can crouch on her knees and crawl along—chin to the ground, as a flat as a turtle—holding 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 Koma’s shoulders.
You can imagine Mirabal’s drum and rattles and calls—now getting louder and faster, now simmering into silence—summoning spirits to a ceremony. Koma enters with handfuls of feathers, burdened in both soul and body. When, trudging forward, he suddenly bends the elbow of his outstretched arm and strikes it against his side, the gesture has the force of a knife meant to wound.
We don’t ascribe roles to these two or wonder what they are doing. When Koma and Eiko press into confrontations with each other’s bodies in Raven, you see—as you do in others of their dances—two people bound together for better or for worse. Their most intimate move consists of bending their knees and leaning together until they can push their heads into the crook of each other’s shoulder. At the end, when they do this, Koma sinks lower, until his face is pressed to Eiko’s thigh; she pushes his head down further and pulls his hips up until he’s squashed against her in an inverted V. Then she pushes down on him, fast and hard, and he collapses. Silence. Is he dead? Eiko, on the floor again, rolls and arches toward him. He stirs. The end.
Some years ago, when I was interviewing Eiko and Koma, I mentioned that several of their most recent dances seemed to be about death. If I’m remembering correctly, Eiko laughed and said that maybe all their dances were. But they are also about living and endeavoring to live, even when, in one of their earliest works (inspired perhaps by Hiroshima), they wore costumes that made them look as if their skin were peeling off and that they were held together by bandaging.
The video of the making of River (the site-specific version) shows footage of the rehearsals and first performances in the summer of 1995—upstate in the Schoharie Creek and then in the Delaware River). The performances began at dusk, and you see Koma maneuvering Eiko downstream and into view; she’s tangled in—one with—branches of driftwood, a white face in the black, unknowable water. But earlier in the documentary, when a sunlit rehearsal ends, the camera shows Koma beckoning toward the shore, and a second later, the couple’s two little sons race from their places on the bank and plunge gleefully into the river. In Eiko and Koma’s works, as in life, birth and regeneration hold hands with death.
At the beginning of Takehiro Ueyama’s new Flight, the last piece on Program B of his company’s Joyce season, the choreographer is standing with his back to us, and he maintains that focus as he begins to move. He’s a fascinating performer—weighted, but silky—and I wonder why his choreography for the other excellent members of TAKE Dance doesn’t explore the dynamic subtleties that are part of his own sensibility.
Ueyama was a member of Paul Taylor’s company for eight years, and, while his movement vocabulary is nothing like Taylor’s, he, like Taylor, favors big, lush, muscular movements and orderly patterns that involve quite a bit of unison. His Japanese heritage mingles with his training and professional experience in the West, producing dances that are both restrained and physically expansive. Everything is attractive; nothing rocks the boat.
He has mentioned in interviews and programs that nature inspires him, but it’s obviously not nature red in tooth and claw; his choreography objectifies and stylizes natural phenomena and human behavior. Flight, the most complex work of his that I’ve seen, applies a view of the avian world to people. They wheel and fan their arms. In unison, they make pecking motions or join their two outstretched hands to suggest beaks. They rush around—circling, clustering, speeding away. Jason Jeunnette’s lighting and Damian Eckstein’s sound score enhance the atmosphere, although Cheryl McCarron’s costumes are puzzling (baggy long-johns mottled in brown and rust).
The shifting patterns are rendered denser by the addition of six dancers to the 10 company members. But Ueyama has delved into bird life only so far. He’s seemingly uninterested in individual forays or the intermittent flickers of notion you see travel through a flock or a community. He, appearing only at the beginning and end of the dance, remains the observer. Has he learned anything? Has anything changed for him?
When I first saw Ueyama’s choreography a year ago, I was bothered by his relationship to some of the scores he uses. Deeply musical choreographers make you feel the innate rightness of their movement choices—that this or that sequence flows felicitously with (or deliberately dissents from) the composer’s phrases. In a piece like Ueyama’s Sakura Sakura (2005), which uses both a sweet Japanese song (“sakura” refers to cherry blossoms) and the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, the choreographer acknowledges the meter of the music and its new beginnings and windings down, but he seems unaware of what’s happening within that framework.
Sakura Sakura is a work for seven women. Sharon Park and Nana Tsuda are featured, but each is highlighted in some way, sometimes while her friends sleep on the floor. Kristen Arnold and Gina Ianni dance companionably side by side and end with a hug. Jill Echo, Marika Kurihara, and Amy Young also have moments in which they step briefly out of the pattern and show their soft, springy power and flashing limbs.
Echo is TAKE Dance’s assistant director and, like Ueyama and Young, she’s a former Taylor company member. Her 2008 Left There by the Tide likens human entanglements to the ebb and flow of waves. The seven dancers begin by rolling from side to side. They kneel and bend over, their heads touching the floor, their arms floating. Out of this, duets develop and drift away.
The only men, Kile Hotchkiss and John Eirich, do double or triple duty—folding their bodies under, over, and around their temporary partners. Young replaces Arnold in a duet with Hotchkiss, and at the end, she’s in his arms, and he’s rocking her. Eirich is gentle with Park, while his meeting with Tsuda starts out tempestuously and turns into a fight.
McCarron’s costumes for this work well; the lightweight material of the blue and green outfits has a watery afterflow. The mix of music (Philip Glass, Graeme Revell, Damian Eckstein, and Lukas Foss) works better than you might think. Echo says in a program note that the piece’s seven brief sections represent emotional moments in relationships, “beginning and ending in a sea of waves.” She creates some pleasing passages but doesn’t quite convey the interplay of surging forces, tide-pool calm, and small shipwrecks that I think she’s after.
TAKE Dance’s performance raises a number of questions, one of them being “What do we hope for when we go eagerly to a dance event?” There are many possible answers. My own include being thrilled by what human beings can accomplish, being made to think in a new way, feeling something resonate deeply with my experience of the world, being delighted by a choreographic language that seems personally forged and alive with implications. Well-made, proficiently danced pieces aren’t quite nourishing enough. For choreographers, daring, even though it may misfire, is worth the risk.