When We First Came to America, San Francisco Was Where We Landed
photo courtesy of Paul Oppenheim

When We First Came to America, San Francisco Was Where We Landed

  • Program note of YBCA, March 15, 2012
  • Roko Kawai in conversation with Eiko Otake and Irene and Paul Oppenheim

It was 1976 and Japan Society had invited Eiko and Koma to perform White Dance in New York. It would be their first trip to the United States, and to fund this opportunity, Eiko, then 24, worked as a kindergarten teacher in Tokyo and Koma, 28, saved money as a bus driver. Hoping to be invited to other American cities, the pair unearthed a copy of Dance Magazine and proceeded to send arduously hand-written letters to everyone on the magazine’s masthead.  The only reply they received was from writer Irene Oppenheim -- then the San Francisco correspondent for Dance Magazine and a dance and theater critic for the Bay Guardian. “The material about White Dance was so strange,” Irene recalls, “I was intrigued and wrote back to them.” With that, Eiko and Koma decided to make a stop-over in San Francisco before going on to New York.

At their first meeting, Eiko remembers Irene riding up on a Vespa scooter.  Irene remembers Eiko arriving in a formal dress and nylon stockings and that Koma wore a suit. “Seeing me in ‘bohemian’ attire put them immediately at ease,” Irene said, “but their English was so limited. Trying to learn about their work through language was impossible --something about a plaza in Germany, with fish.” Irene realized that the only way to find out about what they did was to see it.  So that weekend she and her husband Paul, a sound engineer, set up an impromptu performance of White Dance at Gumption -- an alternative school in a converted auto mechanics’ space in the Haight-Ashbury.
I invited as many friends as I could tempt to help assess these unknown entities. As the back wall of its auditorium, the school had retained the operational doors of the former garage. Later these doors, as well as the 200 pounds of potatoes requested by Koma, would become an impromptu part of White Dance. Toward the end of the piece, Koma threw the potatoes across the stage and opened the garage doors leaving the performance to end with the accompaniment of Page Street traffic and the occasional passerby. It was amazing. In addition to this stunning bit of stagecraft, as artists, Eiko and Koma performed with an intensity I felt I had never before encountered. Their fierceness; how elemental they were; the sounds they sometimes made as they moved; the juxtapositions of the classic and wildly avant-garde – I had simply never experienced anything quite like this.  When they left for New York, I quickly contacted everyone I knew there: “Get to the Japan Society and see these ‘strange creatures’!”

After their now historic debut in New York and a brief return to Japan, Eiko & Koma came back to the U.S.  In those early years (late 70’s-early 80’s), they split their time equally between San Francisco and New York. Eiko remembers, “Although we were clearly strangers, people in the Bay Area were receptive to such strangers.  It was such a lively time, experimentation everywhere, a strong feeling of rebellion, the hippie heritage and alternative culture.” As always, Irene and Paul were central to their lives and art-making.  They produced the premiere of Fur Seal (1977) at ODC’s Performance Gallery in Potrero Hill; what became the iconic onstage tree trunk was found at Stern Grove.  For Before the Cock Crows (1978), a performance installation at the “old SFMOMA,” it was Irene and Paul’s neighbors who “lent” five chickens to the dance. Irene recalls, “We laid cooked spaghetti across the museum’s rotunda, which the chickens fortunately mistook for worms. They performed beautifully.”

“We know more people and performed in more venues in this community than any other city except New York,” Eiko says, citing Theater of Man, Theatre Artaud, the SF Art Institute and many others. They went on to tour extensively in California from UC Berkeley down to UCLA. When in town, they often stayed with their friend Don Philippi (“Firipi-san”), a renowned scholar of ancient Japanese texts and a radical leftist who, under the punk rock alias Slavo Ranko, was also a major force in San Francisco’s emerging punk, new wave and avant-garde music scene.  Other lifelong Bay Area relationships emerged. Anna Halprin’s workshop was the only one they ever took in this country. She also gave them the key to her legendary studio at San Francisco Dancers' Workshop on Divisadero Street. A performance by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company was the very first dance concert they attended in the U.S.  Patty-Ann Farrell designed lights for three early works. Joseph Krysiak designed their posters and logo. In collaboration with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Carroll, they created Nurse’s Song (1981).

Many of these friends and artists of that time were lost to AIDS, and Eiko & Koma eventually established a home base in New York. However, the Bay Area continues to be a highly significant community to them.  Long time friends such as Remi Charlip, Lucas Hoving and YBCA’s Ken Foster came to settle in San Francisco. The Bay Area is also home to many of their later collaborators, including Chanticleer (Double Vision, 1991; Wind, 1993), George Coates (Double Vision), Kronos Quartet (proscenium version of River, 1997, presented at YBCA), and Anna Halprin and Joan Jeanrenaud (Be With, 2001), among numerous others.  The Retrospective Project at YBCA is in many ways a return to a place of landing -- where Eiko & Koma first experienced American audiences and where an American arts community first embraced Eiko & Koma. At the same time, it is also an expression of their enduring power and constant regeneration. As Irene Oppenheim observes, “The Retrospective Project is as though you planted a seed a long time ago and now, after so many years, are fortunate enough to see how it’s grown.”