The King and Queen of Slow Get Busy

The King and Queen of Slow Get Busy

  • New York Times, May 25, 2010
  • Gia Kourlas

photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

Such a drastic dichotomy exists between the experimental choreographer-performers Eiko & Koma onstage and Eiko and Koma in life that sometimes it takes effort to remember that they are the same couple.

While they don’t refer to their brand of dance as Butoh, the form created in postwar Japan, their choreography, which inches along at a glacial pace and has been performed in graveyards and in water, is imbued with a similar poetry of stillness. It transcends time.

Offstage, the only time they take a break from talking is when they move, which they do with ferocious speed and frequency. As they prepared for their multifaceted and multiyear venture, “Retrospective Project,” a fresh approach to exploring a dance artist’s career, beginning at Danspace Project on Thursday night, their Midtown Manhattan apartment spilled over with artifacts. They met in 1971 in Tatsumi Hijikata’s dance studio in Tokyo and are now two of the most venerated artists in the dance world. While the moving-painting quality of their choreography is profoundly arresting, both theatrically and visually — they find the beauty in ugly — there is another layer that gets to the essence of nature. You connect to their world not by watching, but by imagining that you are living inside their bodies.

Koma, waving his arms wildly, interrupted Eiko’s show-and-tell of video excerpts on their new Web site, eikoandkoma.org.

“Eh,” Eiko said, rolling her eyes and moving toward the kitchen. “I’m making lunch.” (It’s helpful to know that they are married.)

Peering intently at the monitor, Koma exclaimed, “That’s me!” In the 1976 work “White Dance,” Koma, in red, could be seen throwing potatoes with abandon.

He dashed down a hallway, only to return with the same costume draped over his arm. “See?” Koma said, holding the red fabric up to his trim frame. “The original costume I am going to be wearing. Eiko, the same.”

Eiko and Koma (she is 58, and he is 61) may address the aging body in their work, but it’s true — they look good. For this installment of the project, “Regeneration,” they will perform “White Dance,” the first piece they presented in New York, and their new “Raven.” The retrospective is conceived and produced by Samuel A. Miller, with whom Eiko & Koma first worked in the early 1990s, when he directed Jacob’s Pillow.

“We could never do this without him,” Eiko said. “We would be fighting to the death.”

The project is a collaborative effort: along with Danspace Project and Asia Society, it involves a network of partners, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The idea isn’t to create a package that will travel from place to place; each appearance by Eiko & Koma will feature elements, including videos and installations, selected specifically by the host organization.

“We’re not trying to get it done in any one place,” Mr. Miller explained, adding, “It’s a cumulative experience.”

In New York the retrospective will include three engagements. Next year the artists will reimagine “Breath” (1998) at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and in 2012 there will be a culminating event in a museum or gallery space. For “Raven,” created as the retrospective’s centerpiece, Eiko and Koma look back to “Land” (1991), which was inspired by New Mexico. At Danspace Project, Robert Mirabal, its composer, will perform an updated score.

“Where ‘Land’ had a very beautiful landscape,” Eiko said, “this one is very much like a postwar Japan.”

A mere glance at their living room provided ample evidence of their set: there were bundles of greenish-black feathers, straw and large pieces of hand-burned canvas.

“Why raven?” Koma asked before answering his own question. “Scavenger.”

Eiko explained, “If there is a death in Asia or in certain parts of Tibet, they bring the body to the field, and birds come and eat it. Our hair is black. We are cousins in a way.”

In an Eiko & Koma production, it’s tricky to tell where the set ends, and the bodies begin. Holding a bundle of feathers as if she were modeling a luxurious coat, Eiko said: “This is interesting, no? We tried to make a costume, but it started to look like ‘Sesame Street.’ Big Bird. It’s an object. It’s a different species’s spirit that is intact. I think I can carry it.”

While different versions of “Raven” will be presented during the next couple of years, part of the point of the retrospective is to reveal Eiko & Koma as living artists with a past, a present and a future. “We’ve been talking about how in 2012 there should be clues about the next arc of work,” Mr. Miller said. “This is not an ending. It’s a moment in time.”

Koma, for one, is titillated by the idea of the next chapter. “We have been artists for the last 40 years,” he said. “In the next 20 years, what am I going to be?”

“My only wish in my life,” Eiko interjected, “is that he dies before me, so that I have a little life, post-Koma.”

Koma said: “We joke, we joke. We have done many, many things. But two things we haven’t done yet: divorcing and dying.”