40 Years In, a Couple Still Seeks New Ideas

40 Years In, a Couple Still Seeks New Ideas

  • New York Times, May 28, 2010
  • Claudia La Rocco

photo by Tom Brzil

Performance retrospectives are all the rage right now, with museums and presenters trying to figure out just what it means for body-based art to receive a curatorial backward glance. Danspace Project and several partners jumped into the fray on Thursday night with “Retrospective Project I: Regeneration,” Part 1 of a three-year survey examining the nearly 40-year collaboration of Eiko & Koma.

Conceived, directed and performed by that singular Japanese couple, who are married and studied under the great Butoh originator Tatsumi and settled in New York in 1976, “Regeneration” tries a little of everything: something old, something new and that double-edged sword, video documentation.

The program begins with “Dancing in Water: The Making of ‘River’ ” (2009), a short documentary of their 1995 outdoor work in which the two occupy a rough-hewn driftwood frame in moving waters. The advantages of video are obvious: we get access to far-flung locations (here a series of rivers) and an insight, through the artists’ narration, into their slow-moving, meditative creative world, which can often seem mysterious. It’s fascinating to see the curtain pulled back and observe them offering corrections in rehearsal.

Yet video isn’t the thing, only an inadequate vessel for capturing a tricky form. “Dancing in Water” has some beautiful moments, especially when Eiko & Koma’s silhouettes are crumpled into the river’s reflective surface at dusk. But it isn’t shot with any particular artistry and at times comes across as a precious nature film.

The two often court preciousness in their installationlike works, as their powdered, contorted bodies hinge and ooze about each other. They have a presence, direct and starkly captivating, like no other performers I’ve seen. But it is no easy task to theatricalize ritual, especially when that’s your bread and butter, and “Raven” (2010) feels a bit too similar in tone, structure and intensity to several of their other recent works.

They make no secret of their continued interest in a few grand themes, usually involving nature and mortality, and “Raven” repurposes material from “Land” (1991), including a powerful drum and voice solo by Robert Mirabal, who performed on Thursday. Lying amid long black feathers on a splotched tawny floor covering, her powdered torso bare, Eiko seemed a bereft, sometimes menacing spirit. Her narrow frame contorted and splayed, more creature than human, as she grabbed at the long shafts of plant material framing her actions.

When Koma joined her, it seemed the two might devour each other. It also seemed predictable and too comfortable, a deadly combination.

And then came a marvelously surprising excerpt from “White Dance” (1976), the couple’s first New York work. Shards of humor, along with the absurd and the grotesque, jostled with no effort at cohesion in this strange container of a dance, which featured recordings of Bach and the delicious 15th-century “Agincourt Carol.”

Koma played the wily fool, loosing two dusty bags of potatoes across the stage. Eiko all but disappeared into a byzantine tapestry projection of moths. Both offered guttural, ridiculous utterings. Their movements quickened without warning, then quieted, sometimes emulating flapping wings. Here these two great artists seemed more at play — and more profound.