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Strip down: Eiko & Koma get to the bare essentials in Naked | Eiko + Koma
Strip down: Eiko & Koma get to the bare essentials in Naked
photo courtesy of Eiko & Koma

Strip down: Eiko & Koma get to the bare essentials in Naked

  • TimeOut New York, March 18, 2011
  • Gia Kourlas

Last November, Eiko & Koma—the Japanese wonder couple—appeared as a living entity within the hallowed contemporary-art collection at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (This may just be the ideal setting for dance in a museum.) In Naked, moving as slowly and painstakingly as ever, they lie on a bed of straw, black feathers, and scorched canvas covered in sweet rice paste, sea salt and dirt. Beginning Tuesday 29 at the HHHHUUBaryshnikov Arts CenterUUHHHH, the New York version of Naked will look a bit different in terms of surroundings and foot traffic; the installation, part of the duo’s magnificent three-year retrospective project, is spread over two studios. In the smaller, the artists will screen films of their work; the larger houses Eiko and Koma, of course, who make rolling around in the dirt look like a magic act. Naked is free. Get your ass there.

Gia: Tell me about the Walker experience. How amazing was it?
Eiko: Eight-thousand people.
Koma: Including the mayor of Minneapolis. He came with his wife and watched about 20 minutes. [Laughs] First time we got mayor.
Eiko: Well, it may not be the first time.
Koma: They usually don’t mention it, even if they saw it.
Eiko: Minneapolis is a really interesting city because it’s Minnesota-nice; it has a characteristic of being hospitable. There are lots of Asian immigrants from Southeast Asia, in the coldest place [Dramatically] on earth. It’s not the most progressive state, but Minneapolis is a pretty progressive city, and people say that many people are educated culturally by the Walker.
Koma: In 1981, the Walker did a dance program.
eiko: Nigel Redden, who is now at Lincoln Center, did “New Dance USA,” and there were probably 40 or 50 companies—we barely made it because we were so new. We came [to New York] in ’76. It was Dana Reitz, Bill T. Jones, Molissa Fenley, all of the people coming up in New York.
Koma: It was three or four days, so everybody shared an evening.
Eiko: It was sort of unheard of. And of course it was a New York–heavy group. Now when we go to Minneapolis, some people have seen us five or six times. It will be a little different at BAC, because BAC is a destination.
Koma: But we make the same environment.
Eiko: Right. The feeling is a little bit different because BAC is a theater complex and a dance center, whereas at the Walker people just came in. In the smaller studio [at BAC], Koma is creating boxes for people to look through to see the films.
Koma: Do you know how people go to the ocean and see the sea and fishes through glass? It’s that kind of thing.
Eiko: In the Walker, there was a movie house where they were running our movies for three months, but here we don’t have that. So like in a waiting room at the dentist’s office where you have magazines, we wanted to give people something to look at. This is small, in studio 6B, and we will have five or six boxes. You walk to the box and you look down and underneath there is a monitor.
Koma: Two or three people can watch at once. We will show from many pieces, many pieces.
Eiko: I am kind of thinking, Pick up only the naked ones. Right? Only naked! Since the Walker is a little high-end, we only showed the dance that we made for film; it was impeccable. [Producer] Sam [Miller] thinks that here we should show some segments of our naked performances, so there’s a sense of what the project is: This is a body of work and that’s how we get to what we share today. Each piece will maybe [spark the reaction of], Oh! They’re naked again! So our history of nakedness becomes very clear.
Gia: When were you first fully naked in a dance?
Eiko: 1984. We made a piece called Night Tide. That was when we lived in the Catskills and we made this piece about mountains making love in the middle of the night. Then, the mountains have to go back to where they used to be before morning comes. We were trying on costumes, but nothing worked. And we were used to showing skin, but we weren’t really naked-naked. In Night Tide, we became naked-naked. When you’re trying to make a piece about mountains making love, nothing you wear seems to make sense.
Koma: And of course, you could see the body’s shape better. We got so tired of being in the city, so one day, we packed everything and we went to the Catskills, to a small village near Woodstock, and that’s where we lived for two years. We got 15 acres of land, very cheap. We wanted to be away from the city culture and our colleagues too. It was the first time in our lives to live in the country. So we had land, some streams, a small hill…
Eiko: Fishes, fireflies!
Koma: And, of course, deer. The first year of doing it, it was fun. Chopping wood, we never done it. But of course after one year, I got so bored. [Eiko laughs]
Eio: There was too much noise during the summer! All the electric noises.
Koma: People started mowing. And then during deer season, people started to come [He blows away some imaginary deer with an imaginary rifle]: bum, bum, bum, bum. Maybe it’s quieter, but you can hear the noise. In the city, you can just ignore it, right? So one night in our living room, we made this dance. We didn’t have costumes. We didn’t have money and, also, we didn’t have a nice fabric store nearby. I told Eiko, “I want to see the mountain in this living room.” So, Eiko, go. [Eiko lies, stomach-down, on the floor] So then I say, “Where’s the mountain?” [Eiko slowly starts to raise her rear] See? The highest point is the buttocks! It got difficult to see, so after a while I told Eiko, “Why don’t you take your jeans off?”
Eiko: I’m not doing that now!
Koma: No, no, but then. This is how it started. For us, we are just moving buttocks and then after 10 or 15 minutes, we meet each other in the center and hug—one hug—and then we said goodbye. That’s it. That’s the first total naked dance we did. It’s a simple piece.
Eiko: We had music, but it was very simple. Nothing complicated. Many people danced naked—starting with Anna Halprin or earlier with Isadora Duncan, but there are not many male or female pairs who danced for 30 years naked. Usually you do it once for the statement. Trisha Brown did it. For us, it’s more like we really started to use it as a part of our vehicle. It was interesting to find out, Oh my God—we have made many pieces naked. Our nudity is a very different nudity then when we were in our early thirties.
Gia: Why? Because of the way you look?
Eiko: Yeah, it’s an aging body. We are really not hiding this.
I know, but Eiko, there is not much to hide. You both look good. Would you do this if you didn’t look so good?
Koma: [Slight pause] Yeah, yeah.
Eiko: I really don’t think we look good, but one person—a Japanese man—made an interesting comment. He wasn’t very comfortable with me being naked. He came to see [Naked] three times and he became comfortable—because it’s one of those acquired tastes—and then he finally told me, “You can do this because you have no breasts.” Which I thought was a silly comment at first; then I thought, That’s actually maybe true. It’s not because I look good, it’s more because I have such flat breasts—I have less association with those big things, and it’s easier for me to roll around. Yes, it’s female and male, but it’s not so sexual.
Koma: Also he mentions at the same time: “You are lucky. Some men have lots of hair when they are naked.” I am not a hairy man.
Eiko: We didn’t notice that until somebody said it. It’s not a part of our decision-making, but if I had really full breasts and if Koma had lots of hair, we might make a different texture. It makes it a little easier for the audience to see [the piece], too.
Because what you’re doing doesn’t always look real?
Eiko: Exactly. We look pretty broken already, and in this piece, we are really not playing with strength and power or rigor or technique or composition. It is very desolate and fragile and weak; our bodies make it a little more compassionate. I’m not a very pitiful woman, but I look so pitiful sometimes.
Gia: What were you thinking about for this installation?
Koma: Distance. From the beginning of our career, ideally we wanted to dance very, very close to the people. Almost within touching distance.
Eiko: People, in this, are alarmingly close to us, which was very scary at the Walker because sometimes there’s a kind of strange tension among people. Some people are very comfortable watching us and some people hold a lot of tension; or they’re examining us, like, Are they really naked? The audience is making a decision: Here is Eiko, here is Koma. Where should I sit? And how do I look? And they’re almost making this instinctive decision of, Do I look sympathetically? Do I look at the whole thing? Do I look at a detail?
Koma: I also want to introduce a smell in our dance. We are using a scorched fabric. It smells. See, all nakedness has a different smell: Chicken has a different smell. Fish has a different smell. If you put something on the cutting board and if the skin is old, you can start smelling it. And people are the same. I’m sure when you are visiting an old friend, 84 or 85—I’m sorry to say—you start to smell something. A naked baby has a different smell. This environment, I am hoping you will take my smell and Eiko’s smell. Literally people can smell, but I also want them to feel it.
Eiko: At the Walker, it was too cold. We couldn’t handle it, so we asked to raise the temperature, and they did because they were concerned about our health. The room was much warmer than the rest of the museum. It was almost like a botanical garden. Just before the show, we add more burned stuff so there is more of a smell. Everything is so neat in a museum or gallery. Everything is so clean. That is so opposite of where we wanted to be.
Gia>: Was it a big deal to make this free to the public?
Eiko: all of a sudden I said to Koma, “Are we going to charge for this?” It was supposed to cost something so that we could get a fee, but [BAC] said fine—we forgoed our fee and they forgoed the ticket price, which was very generous, because they are still supporting all technical aspects of this. I always like to perform for free. We were going to make the evening a little bit different, with a sense of a beginning, middle and end; it was supposed to be an 8pm show, so it would have been something theatrical out of this experience. But we very much liked this open format. Of course, this is not really an open format, because it’s not a gallery; in a way, it’s a new format: This is in a performance venue, but we are creating an installation. People come to it as a destination. Even if they have to leave after ten minutes, they don’t feel that much shit as if they had paid $35.
Koma: And they can bring a friend.
Eiko: And they can come back.
Koma: For certain people, five minutes is enough. Five minutes is fine!
Eiko: But sometimes it actually takes 60 minutes to understand something different. So we’re not saying you have to stay for 60 minutes but if you do, you actually have a different experience than five minutes. Which is not to say that one is different from the other. And I like people to come back.
Koma: It’s like a painting: Some people watch for 60 minutes, some people watch only three minutes.
Eiko: Right. And whatever they get from it is theirs. It’s not ours. At the Walker, it was so interesting because in the morning in Minneapolis, not many people come to a museum. Sometimes they would come into the room and feel obliged to stay because they felt pity. It’s interesting how people feel that kind of compassion.
Gia: They’re projecting themselves on you?
Eiko: Exactly, and I like that—it’s because of the proximity, I think. We could actually see people coming in.
Koma: Like animals at a zoo. I think the polar bears are counting the number of people in the audience. [Eiko cracks up]
Eiko: Koma and I used to say, “That one came again.” There was one man who came every day. We never really saw his face, but we could feel him. So we were like animals. We don’t feel we are animals, but we see the world from that angle. We are sort of trapped.
Gia: How do you prepare?
Eiko: There is not so much in preparation, but we didn’t really realize how tiring it would be. We first thought, We’ll have the evening free, because at the Walker it was 11am to 5pm except Thursday. We thought that we would see lots of movies and get a lot of work done at night. We were tired.
Koma: I lost lots of leg muscle because we were sleeping all day: six hours. I thought I would go to the gym at night, but… [He shakes his head sadly.]. During the afternoon, I was sleeping six hours. The evening, I was sleeping eight hours. The total: 14 hours lying down.
Eiko: The piece doesn’t really work if we are moving too much. We had to be pretty desperate. It’s almost broken down.
Gia: You don’t move a lot during Naked, but I don’t get the feeling that you’re relaxed.
Koma: Oh, no.
Eiko: You know, it’s like if you are ill for a very long time. That’s not relaxing. And the distance is almost like we are in a hospital and people are coming to visit. Sometimes they are just afraid to come all the way to touch you; you don’t exactly know how to speak, because you can’t say, “Hi, how are you? You look great,” but there’s a sense of compassion. I am not pretending we are sick, but we are stuck there. In some way, we are in a cage or on an island or in a cradle. Or it’s some kind of bear that’s stuck on an iceberg.
Koma: Or a baby bird in a nest waiting for Mother to deliver some food.
Eiko: Koma is right. It’s not only like dying: It’s almost fragile. A new beginning.