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Eiko & Koma’s “Raven” to hover over the Lynden Garden | Eiko + Koma
Eiko & Koma’s “Raven” to hover over the Lynden Garden
photo by Tom Strini

Eiko & Koma’s “Raven” to hover over the Lynden Garden

  • Third Coast Digest, July 22, 2011
  • Tom Strini

I first saw Eiko and Koma in 1984, at the American Dance Festival. I remembered them nude or nearly so, slowly knotting and uncoiling atop a mound of dirt in a Duke University Theater. They’d already been at it for 12 years then, and they are still performing. Eiko and Koma will dance their Raven at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, in a joint offering of the garden and Alverno Presents.

Over the decades, the duo has become legendary for their particular take on Butoh, the “dance of utter darkness,” pioneered in Japan by their first teacher, Kazuo Ohno.

When they scouted the garden in October, they settled on an idyllic spot near the south bank of the garden’s large pond. That plan changed utterly when the pair arrived in Milwaukee Wednesday afternoon.

The smaller of the garden’s two pond had just been drained, in an effort to control algae. The green goo that had covered the surface of the water had dried and contracted into crusty brown clumps that almost looked cultivated, or at least arranged, on the dry lake bed. The desolation of it appealed to Koma, and he and Eiko moved Raven there. At Lynden Thursday, staffers were hastily building low platforms to be installed on the bed of the pond for the Saturday performance. On those platforms, Eiko and Koma, amid raven feathers, will play out their slow-moving, ritualistic sort of dance theater.

After we looked at the site, Koma opened a copy of Time Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty, a catalog of their complete works with commentary, to a two-page photo taken at Hiroshima after the atomic bomb destroyed the city. He pointed out that the relentlessly dusty gray scene rather resembled the dry pond.

“One day after the bomb, people came to look, and they took pictures,” he said. “Why? This could be a ritual. Ritual is something we must do.”

Koma added that the same impulse lies behind happier occasions, the birth of a baby, say, and the ritual round of visits and picture-taking that follows.

Eiko and Koma believe that something profound lies in humanity’s need for ritual and that art has been entwined with it from the very start. Their passion at the moment is Werner Herzog’s Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about 6,000-year-old cave paintings in France.

“They found paintings and they found pieces of instruments there,” Koma said. “They had painting, they had music and, I am quite sure, dance.”

“We have the same artistic desire today,” Eiko added. “Our desire is to be both ancient and contemporary. We want to connect not just with something very old, but with something common through time. We have always thought of ritual in our work.

“Really, our work is not that entertaining. We don’t have to make an argument. We want to present a strange moment — a moment you can remember even 20 years from now. We want to reveal the nakedness of a dried pond. You don’t really have to understand everything. You don’t really have to look at us all the time. In this setting, you can notice the change in the position of the sun, you can notice the changing shadows. That’s fine.”

Eiko and Koma are all about heightened awareness. Eiko says their works have beginnings, middles and ends, but they aren’t climactic or goal-oriented. And they aren’t beautiful in the usual sense of the word.

“We don’t treat the modern-dance body as a beautiful, healthy thing,” Eiko said. “It’s more of something that decays. We rise from nature and go back to nature, but not as a pretty thing. We age. We wither.”

Raven fits.

“We always give people a title they can cling to,” Eiko said. “People don’t have good associations with ravens. We associate them with death. It’s not a pretty bird. We like that.”

“That’s why we don’t call it Chicken,” Koma said, then burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. (For a couple whose work focuses on the corruptibility of the flesh, they’re awfully cheerful and quick to laugh.)

Eiko got the interview back on track: “A raven is not a consumer product, something a human can own or eat. It is a more ancient image. The bird is a point for the audience to ponder. Just seeing those black feathers is enough.”

“The raven hovers over us,” Koma said.

Eiko and Koma consider the mind of each person in the audience an extension of the stage. Their job is to set the stage for heightened awareness.

“It’s not logical discourse that goes on in their heads,” Eiko said. “It’s more like a murmuring. Our work is an invitation to find their own feeling.”

Eiko and Koma will perform Raven at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 23, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road. The show, co-presented with Alverno Presents, is completely sold out. Lynden management asks ticket holders to please park in the Park & Ride lot,  located just west of the Brown Deer Road exit off I-43. A free shuttle bus will run between the Park & Ride and Lynden beginning at 4:45 p.m.

Raven is part of a larger, multi-city Retrospective Project, in which Eiko and Koma reconsider their nearly 40 years of work together in various ways. It includes an ongoing installation piece and four performances through Nov. 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.