The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Universe
photo by Johan Elbers

The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Universe

  • 2002
  • Suzanne Carbonneau

Nature is in our body as we move, breathe and rest. Often our rest separates one day from the next; sometimes we rest between lives.  - Eiko

In Johan Elbers's unintentionally elegiac photographs of Eiko and Koma taken at a site performance on the World Trade Center landfill in 1980, we see the dancers responding to the colossal mass and verticality of the buildings that loom above them. In acknowledgment of the soaring structure, they first rise with tensile strength before changing course into swooping arcs which pull them back earthward, as they curve away from the steel leviathans with the obeisant grace of willows.

From the grief and prostration of our present perspective, it is impossible not to see these photographs as almost unbearably valedictory, nor to suppress the impulse to see the fate of the buildings in the contradictory values - hubris and humility - expressed by the architecture and the dancers, respectively. What is perhaps most extraordinary about these images, however, is that, despite the disparity in scale between the human and the behemoth, Eiko and Koma more than hold their own against what should by rights be an utterly overpowering backdrop. Like those majestic photographs of Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon taken by Arnold Genthe in 1920, these images assert the ability of the body to impress itself upon space in a monumental way. Bookending the century, Duncan and Eiko and Koma dance against architectural backgrounds that, despite the weight of history, civic import, mythology, and sheer size, seem incongruously apt as settings for their unadorned movement statements.

If Eiko and Koma's work is not dwarfed even by the retrospective fact of catastrophe, it may be because their movement style is rooted in a dance form that was developed in response to another incomprehensible tragedy - that is, to the Japanese experience of nuclear holocaust. In the early 1970s, the pair began their movement studies with two of the most profoundly influential theater artists in contemporary Japan, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ono Kazuo, who are credited as the founders of the dance form known as butoh. A development of post-World War II Japan, butoh was a reaction against the war and its aftermath, and a search for what was essentially Japanese in the face of American political and cultural hegemony, as well as a critique of Western reason and codified technique. The grotesque imagery and bodily distortion of butoh were drawn from the outer edges of Japanese history - visions of technological apocalypse mixed with primitive ritual - as well as from a mining of intuition, emotion, dream, and internal imagery for source material. After several years of work with Hijikata and Ono, Eiko and Koma left Japan to study the German Expressionist (austrucktanz) style, which also had been influential in the development of butoh. Austrucktanz, too, was a reaction to being on the wrong side of history, as it drew much of its horrific imagery from the trench warfare of World War I, linking it with the work of painters Emile Nolde and Otto Dix, filmmakers F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and the playwright Oskar Kokhashka. After several years in Europe, Eiko and Koma settled permanently in New York in 1976, where they have, over the past twenty-five years, developed a movement style that, while drawing on all of these influences, is a decidedly singular creation.

While our response to the image of Eiko and Koma dancing at the base of the twin towers has been irrevocably transformed by an accident of history, their ability to bring meaning to this cataclysmic event is inherent in the nature of their work.  For it carries with it not just the scope and sweep of what we think of as recorded history, but, incredibly, of something even larger: nothing less than all of life moving through all of time. The vastness of such a subject calls for epic means and these artists have perfected a device toward this end: they slow time down to such an extent that it is almost impossible to be aware of its passing. In fact, we seem to be completely outside of measurable time here, and make the leap into something more closely approximating geological time. The degree of their sustainment is so virtuosically pushed to the extreme, that time seems to disappear altogether into timelessness.

While they have resided outside of Japan for thirty years, there are aspects of the style of Eiko and Koma that link them to an aesthetic that has its roots in Taoism and its successor Zen Buddhism. One of the central tenets of this philosophy is the idea of the impermanence of life, and of the inevitability of change. The aesthetic implications of this concept are to be found in the idea of the path as being more important - more true - than attainment. This is manifested in their work in its emphasis on timeless and endless journeying, on the sense always that the personae in their work are in the act of becoming. It is suggested, too, in the openness and deliberate nonspecificity of the dances that allow unlimited possibilities for audience members to complete the work in their imaginations, and in this way to become part of a work and its creation. Likewise, the philosophical admonition to seek the true nature of things rather than to rely on outward appearances finds its embodiment in their interest in the essence - what in Zen is often referred to as the such-ness - of natural phenomena. In their work, which bear titles that resonate as contained, single images, such as Grain (1983), Night Tide (1984), Tree (1988), Rust (1989), Memory (1989), Land (1991), Wind (1993), Distant (1994), Echo (1995), River (1995), Breath (1998), and Snow (1999), they are concerned with life processes and what is elemental.  Eiko and Koma's creaturely personae seem to have been present at the creation, and the work strongly connotes that humans are deeply connected with all beings on the evolutionary scale. Contorting themselves in such a way that their bodies often become unrecognizable as human, they can evoke everything from single-celled creatures to evolutionary mistakes, or even disappear completely into the landscape. Always, we are reminded that we are part of nature, that all beings share the mutuality of being subject to natural forces and the life cycle.

While an unhurried conception of time is a trait characteristic of other Japanese theatrical forms such as Noh, bugaku, and kabuki, for example, Eiko and Koma attenuate time so that it becomes another phenomenon altogether, with the potential to actually change the consciousness of the viewer by encouraging a meditative state. This deliberateness gives the work a sense of spaciousness and infinitude, and carries with it a suggestion that a lifetime is to be seen in the context of all lifetimes. If time is slowed down enough, change becomes inexorable even if it is undetectable as it is happening. Other Zen-derived aesthetic principles such as an appreciation for the subdued and austere are to be found in their movement, which is spare, sustained, rooted, elastic, and filled with spaciousness. (Eiko and Koma call this "Delicious Movement.") In its slowness, each moment is given utter attention, and every action is performed with the utmost luminosity and concentration. In this larger view, there is no differentiation between the more important and less important. Every movement is allowed its such-ness, every moment is of equal interest. There are no distinctions made between a main movement and a transition, for example, as the smallest detail is to be approached with mindfulness. Attention is not to be maintained but is to be renewed at each moment, and the dynamic of the work resides in the subtlest of changes. Always, simplicity, purity, tranquility, and subtlety are at its heart.

Those 1980 performances of Event: Fission just north of what would become the World Financial Center were not Eiko and Koma's only relationship with the World Trade Center. In the year just before the attack on the buildings, they had been resident artists on the 92nd floor of the North Tower, where they had painted and constructed the set for When Nights Were Dark (2000). In an eerily precognizant letter to the work's composer Joseph Jennings, Eiko wrote about her conception, as though she knew it would be a dance that the world would come to be in need of. "This will be an altar and a hearse," she envisioned, "where the audience feels invited to pray without a language. We will address death, sleep, awakening, and cycles of life in the glowing light that suggests our destiny and our beginning." It seems extraordinary now to visualize Eiko and Koma in that space creating a dance that would so compellingly if unconsciously address the tragedy that would shortly befall those with whom they went to work everyday.  But, then again, it was a piece that dealt with themes that they had spent the last thirty years giving voice to.

It is the metaphorical implications of their entire body of work, in fact, that come to our aid in looking for a response to this latest example of mankind's extraordinary capacity for inhumanity. As so much of their oeuvre has been concerned with a vision of our lives as interconnected with all of life across all time, it gives us comfort in suggesting that this madness and grief will pass. When viewed from this long perspective, the cataclysmic event seems a moment that will be swept away, an instant from which we will recover and arise.

- Suzanne Carbonneau 2002