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Water NY Times | Eiko + Koma
Water NY Times
photo by Kevin Yatarola

Into the Pool, Slowly but With Feeling

  • New York Times, August 1, 2011

Forty years after they began to collaborate, the performance duo Eiko & Koma remain among New York’s greatest and most extraordinary performers. Their particular secret is that, while moving with extreme slowness, they are masters of suspense. Watching, you’re kept on tenterhooks: what will happen next?

Last week they performed a new work, “Water,” at — or rather in — the Paul Milstein Pool at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza, with buildings on four sides (this was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival) and with the audience gathered around the rectangular pool’s perimeters. Though they have presented waterbound pieces before, my own prior experience of them has always been on dry land. Sand, earth and leaves have often made their dramas elemental; water does as much and more.

The narrative suggested by “Water” took these two performers through what looked like a hazardous ford, a fraught meeting, drowning, attempts at rescue, a raft, corpses borne on a current and a funeral bier at sea. At times the two artists were as motionless and supine in the water as waiting crocodiles or floating logs. But the drama seemed always heroic, even epic. Scenes from Kurosawa movies came to mind; so did Turner seascapes, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott floating down to Camelot, and Tolkien’s dead Boromir floating down the river Anduin.

They begin by wading, from opposite directions, through thigh-deep water. Eiko, while alone, already registers on a colossal scale. Raising an arm high and looking up into the sky as if in grief, she is a supreme mistress of dramatic gesture, filling the space above and around her with expression. Her meeting with Koma is momentous, with the pool’s two gargantuan Henry Moore shapes serving as their backdrop. When he takes her hand and lifts it, the gesture seems at first chivalrous. Next, however, he pulls her arm sideways, opening her body up to his demands. Yet the situation is enigmatic, and the mood stays bleak.

Before long it’s he who has fallen into the water. She holds his hand as he floats, and yet she looks away. Robert Mirabal, in one corner of the pool, beats a drum in a loud, urgent pulse: the implication of a rapid heartbeat maintains a powerful sense of alarm throughout what follows. Eiko finds a raft and brings it back to Koma. Later he behaves as if trying to save her; in one episode he raises the raft over her as if it were a canopy. In due course Mr. Mirabal’s drum slows down, and he adds slow flute threnodies. In a brief passage, Koma’s body demonstrates a series of minor spasms that coincide with drumbeats, while Eiko rises until her whole torso is erect above the water.

The two perform in loose robes, with their faces and arms daubed in white. When a mouth hangs ajar, when eyelids lift a fraction, these things register powerfully — often their faces look like tragic masks — amid physicality that is invariably charged with a sense of expressive gesture. When nothing more is visible of them than a face and two hands above the water, the image remains compelling. In the final sequence, they are joined by a small raft of lighted candles, with which they pass softly down the pool, between the two Moore statues, and so into, it seems, eternity.

The dramas of Eiko & Koma always suggest situations of human extremity, and yet they achieve this with real beauty. The lighting for “Water,” by Kathy Kaufmann, made faces, robes, sculptures, reflections, ripples all register as if part of one great painting after another.

The Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival continues through Aug. 14; lcoutofdoors.org.