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Eiko and Koma at the 2010 American Dance Festival | Eiko + Koma
Eiko and Koma at the 2010 American Dance Festival
Photo by Anna Lee Campbell

Eiko and Koma at the 2010 American Dance Festival

  • NEA Dance Journalism Institute

For this article, 14 critics weighed in on the same show.

Eiko and Koma at the 2010 American Dance Festival

Watching Eiko and Koma is like diving into texture. Movement seems unnecessary with so much depth of content. The duo evokes the fragility and endurance of the earth and its creatures by rendering the moment-by-moment mutations of life. Fused with magical light and natural props and sounds, their almost singular approach to movement - commonly described as "slow," "inching," "glacial" - is so elemental, it evokes the struggle of all living things to survive. Moving between struggle and ecstasy, they tense and surrender over the course of an evening and a life.

For nearly 40 years, Eiko and Koma Otake have been creating work that takes vulnerability and change as its subject. This year, they’re embarking on a major retrospective project that will include a visual art exhibition and catalog, workshops, panel discussions, film screenings, and live performances. At Duke University’s Reynolds Theater June 28-30, they performed three works spanning their career. It was their 17th visit to the American Dance Festival, and traces of their history filled the lobby - photographs, a computer displaying their comprehensive new website, and video projections that featured the dancers in various spaces - a river, an expanse of sand, a graveyard.

The program gave a sense of their development over time. From 1976’s “White Dance” to this year’s “Raven,” their movement has become sparer, while their sets — Eiko and Koma are also visual artists — have grown richer and more textured. From the beginning, though, the vulnerability of the body is central. Whether Koma is crashing to his knees or Eiko is quaking on wobbly legs, their bodies speak to us of struggles and suffering. And when one or both rise into a movement that conveys exaltation, the dancers communicate the survival of spirit as well as body.

In "Raven," made especially for the touring retrospective, Eiko's spine curves in irregular shapes like the scorched holes in the canvas hanging behind her. Her habitat of sand, straw and feathers hints at a parched world as she reaches out tensed arms and legs, paddling or clawing at the air in eloquent silence. Though subtle, the dance is potent. In 1984's "Night Tide," the careful trajectories of their spectral bodies seem to bend time. Beauty and wonder ensue. This was the first of their works performed in full nudity, and it is raw and stunningly human. And in "White Dance," Eiko and Koma's slow dancing and dusty potatoes create a textured and stunning meditation on life's fragility and challenge.

Though "slow dance" — the simple, unadorned body moving quite slowly — is not theirs alone (Cloudgate of Taiwan, for example, sets slow-motion tai chi movements to Bach), stillness and silence are crucial elements of Eiko & Koma's work, and the distinction between stillness and motion is hard to discern. Eiko & Koma create micro movement within stillness; they appear to be frozen in time, but a closer look shows that they never actually stop moving, that there is always more space and stretch in each physicalization.

A theme of recycling and reinvention also infuses their work. Over the course of their career, they have often reused sets, music, body movement and costumes across works, making the old new again. The three pieces presented at ADF, for example, used and reused a base set consisting of scorched and torn canvas material. In "Raven," a central floor panel of canvas was littered with loose leaves and jet-black raven feathers, and flanked with straw. Additional fabric panels were then added for "Night Tide"; the piece's blue lighting, combined with the textured fabric, helped audiences to see the place Eiko and Koma inhabited as a foreign undersea landscape. And Koma's actions in "White Dance" highlighted the canvas that hung as a backdrop when he surprised audiences by smacking into it, setting it swinging side to side long after he'd hit it. The canvas panels lent a sense of continuity to the evening, even though each of the three pieces is from a different decade.

This sense of continuity comes from a place of deep commitment and a continual exploration. “Everything we do in life is research,” says Eiko. These two live and breathe their work, as they have since they began. Eiko and Koma’s art addresses life’s essentials, bringing nature and their own relationship into each dance. There is strong magnetism between them as they drag and pull their bodies towards each other, meeting somewhere in the middle. However brief their connection, it is both powerful and gentle. Their work plumbs a deep well of discovery, a true gift to the world.