Arts & Culture

Eiko & Koma transcend dance

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2011

The heap of black feathers stands out among sand and dry reeds. It takes seconds after the lights come on in the studio for the woman, dusted in chalk, to materialize in front of the pile. As a bird’s caw sounds in the room, the woman’s limbs shift and turn over before she finally sits upright, takes handfuls of reeds and feathers and exalts to the sky as drumbeats fill Studio 1 of the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

The woman — dancer and choreographer Eiko of Eiko & Koma, a duo made up of her and her husband — displays a mix of emotions throughout the piece titled “Raven.” But in these opening moments, she seems only alarmed and horrified as Koma rains more black feathers down on her. This theatrical dance, part of a performance called “Regeneration” and a larger retrospective project showcasing the dancers’ decades together as partners, is about transformation, in time and body.

The pair visited the University as part of a one-week residency that included leading workshops with students and performing for the Brown community.

International appeal

Eiko & Koma’s performances transcend dance, said Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature Forrest Gander, who first approached the duo about performing at Brown a year ago at a Minnesota stop on their retrospective tour. Their pieces, which draw inspiration from dance styles like the Japanese Butoh and consist of various distortions of the body, are theatrical and poetic, he said.

Part of Eiko & Koma’s appeal is the “internationality” of their work, Gander said. The pair met in their native Japan as university students about 40 years ago, Eiko told The Herald, but they are also permanent residents of Manhattan. As artists, they incorporate global and cultural issues into their work, Gander said.

Gander has been a fan of the pair for nearly 20 years, starting at the Dance Umbrella in Cambridge, Mass., and continuing through later performances in New York City and at Duke University’s campus, he said. Though Eiko & Koma often conduct workshops for college students, they rarely perform on campuses, so getting them to College Hill proved difficult to arrange. One of the biggest challenges ­— not realized until they arrived on campus Sunday — was that the Granoff auditorium, their original performing space, was too narrow and would restrict movement during their pieces. “That space was not made for performance,” Koma said.

Studio 1 was opened to give Eiko & Koma more floor space for their three pieces. The room seats 100 people, fewer than what they are used to, but Eiko said it allows for more intimacy between them and the audience.

“They cannot hide from us, as much as we cannot hide from them,” she said.

Eiko & Koma performed Wednesday and Thursday nights in the studio. While these were their first shows for the Brown community, each of the three pieces the pair performed — “Raven,” from 2010, “Night Tide,” from 1984 and an excerpt from their 1976 “White Dance” — has been previously shown. The retrospective nature of their performance creates an interesting dichotomy between new and old, Eiko said.

Bodies of movement

The pair’s work is rooted in trauma, drawing from a “primal power to evoke such a range of responses” in viewers, Gander said. Inspirations for their work include the bombing of Hiroshima, the Cambodian genocide and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said.

The nature of “Regeneration” is that it draws on “ancient emotions,” Eiko said.

Themes of death and rebirth are obvious in “Raven,” a haunting 25-minute piece, set in a wasteland of brown sand, reeds, black feathers and scorch marks. When Eiko stirs at the piece’s beginning, her body contorts, her limbs extend and her back hunches before she can right herself. She takes minutes to stand, as if she is learning how to walk or forcing tired limbs to work. They end the piece huddled on the floor, spent, with feathers dispersed around them, giving the feeling that they have just survived something catastrophic.

They conduct their second piece, the 12-minute-long “Night Tide,” completely in the nude. The performance in its entirety consists of them slowly crawling toward each other, as background music submerges viewers underwater. Slowly, the two distinct bodies merge into one as they meet in the stage’s middle and embrace. Eventually, though, they drift apart and settle once again on the seafloor, still littered with the raven’s feathers.

Their last piece, “White Dance,” is condensed to 25 minutes from the work’s original 55. The most dynamic of the night’s performances, the piece tells a tale of tradition and domestic life through faster movements, cacophonic music and surreal actions — at one point, Koma empties a bag of potatoes across the stage around a kneeling Eiko.

The merging of bodies is present throughout the three pieces. In “Raven,” Eiko climbs onto Koma’s back and embraces him before the pair collapse to the ground. In “Night Tide,” the pair meets, embracing and caressing, at the piece’s climax. “White Dance” tells the story of two people with a seemingly tumultuous relationship — Koma at one point kicks Eiko to the ground. At the end of the piece, he picks her up and throws her over his shoulder before placing her on the ground and lifting her neck as if handling a puppet. But throughout all three pieces, there is intimacy, comfort and a sense of inseparability.

Rebirth on the stage

Performing the three pieces within the “Regeneration” context degenerates each work, Eiko said, allowing an opportunity for rebirth, or a new take, on the pieces, she said.

After the event, in a discussion with the audience moderated by dance critic Marcia Siegel, Eiko added that there is a new energy in performing a piece at a later date — as they have aged, certain representations of life shift, she told the audience.

The pair choreographs their own dances and does not hire other dancers to perform them, she said. She also said during the discussion that so
me specific details and moves are improvised, but the pieces have an overall trajectory.

Eiko & Koma also plan their sets and costumes, Koma said, adding that sometimes the easiest solution to costuming is to perform nude.

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