Regeneration by Deborah Jowitt
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

Retrospective Project I: Regeneration

  • The Village Voice, June 1, 2010
  • Deborah Jowitt

It’s startling to realize that I first saw Eiko and Koma perform in 1976. They came out of nowhere, as far as I was concerned, and very shortly after showing their White Dance: Moth, they left town. Since I had never heard of that radical form of Japanese contemporary dance known as butoh, it would have meant nothing to me to know that, in their native Japan, they had studied briefly with butoh’s founding fathers, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, and were trying to develop their own style. I only knew that I had never seen anything like White Dance.

It took place in a corner of the Performing Garage, lasted an hour, and was mesmerizingly inscrutable. Time slowed to a crawl. I remember Eiko—twenty-something and as delicately beautiful as a woman of old Edo in an Ukioye wood-block print—seated on the floor, her slender arms probing the air like tendrils seeking light, or seaweed drifting in oceanic currents. Gradually, balancing on her tailbone, she began to move her legs in the same way, her toes like separate little creatures. I remember Koma emptying sacks of potatoes on the floor. When they performed in New York the following year and every year thereafter—eventually settling in this city—I made sure to be there.

Almost 40 years have passed since the two met at Hijikata’s studio—a couple of young people who’d been involved in the student uprisings of the 1960s and suddenly thought the new, intense form of dance might be worth investigating. This spring, at Danspace, they’re inaugurating their “Retrospective Project,” which will culminate in 2012. The program is flexible. At Saint Mark’s, the audience is shown a fine video, Dancing in Water: The Making of River (camera by David Geary, Nuria Olive-Belles, and Douglas Rosenberg); excerpts from White Dance; and the new Raven.

Seeing one of Eiko and Koma’s first works on the same program with their latest, I realize that even a 25-minute excerpt from White Dancehas more elements, more changes, than their later pieces. The music is “found” and Western: the medieval “Agincourt Carol” and a Bach harpsichord concerto. Traces of their experiences in the 1970s with German modern dance crop up—once, Koma runs and jumps; once Eiko lifts a leg to the side and holds it there for a second. They speak, cry out. Koma kicks Eiko and makes her collapse. He crashes to the floor, landing on his knees. Yet the piece—with its slow passages, its earthiness, and its primal imagery—contains the seeds of their later, pared-down dances. All the duets they’ve done since then have resonated with the poem printed in the program for White Dance.The poet, Mitsuharu Kaneko, spoke of an earth so “dim and quiet/That even dewdrops could be heard dropping/Onto the bed of grass from the twigs below.”

Almost all their dances take place in a particular landscape, which then influences everything they do. The titles are often clues to the pair’s single-mindedness: Grain, Thirst, Tree, Land, River, Snow. . . . In works like these, they merge with their environment, often struggling to find their way to one another, like blind animals clumsily seeking to mate, or beleaguered humans trying to prop each other up or reach a new place. They move in such tiny increments that, watching them, you can seldom predict the destination of a particular gesture; your own breathing slows down. Some unknown hunger or thirst seems to propel them. Whether they perform onstage or out of doors, we see them buried in earth, emerging from leaves, tangling with driftwood in watery currents.

At the beginning of Raven, Eiko is lying on a beige canvas floor, edged with dried grasses that stick out on either side like fringe on a rug. It’s mottled—so is the backdrop—scorched or burnt in places. Black feathers lie scattered beside her. Very slowly, in Kathy Kaufmann’s early-morning light, she negotiates rolling onto her side and arching until her face is toward us. A lock of her black hair falls and merges with the feathers. She’s wearing a yellow sarong, and her breasts are bare. Robert Mirabal, the Native American composer and performer, seated on the floor, starts to play single, muted beats on the large, shallow drum he’s been holding (the score is adapted from one he composed for Eiko and Koma’s Land in 1991).

Eiko curls sharply in, and now it’s her spine we’re contemplating, noting how one shoulder blade, because of the way she’s lying, appears more prominent than the other. Slowly she lifts a leg straight up, and her toes fan out; her foot looks like the head of a snake (can it see us?). Mirabal sits with his back to her, sensing her, his gravity proclaiming this a ritual. He starts to chant syllables in a high clear voice.

How uncanny Eiko’s flexibility is. Every joint seems to bend deeply. Her leg gropes past her shoulder. She can crouch on her knees and crawl along—chin to the ground, as a flat as a turtle—holding a bunch of grass in each hand. In this desert, creatures die and other scavenge their corpses for food. The dark object lying on the ground turns out to be something like a dried skin that she can laboriously pull over herself or lay across Koma’s shoulders.

You can imagine Mirabal’s drum and rattles and calls—now getting louder and faster, now simmering into silence—summoning spirits to a ceremony. Koma enters with handfuls of feathers, burdened in both soul and body. When, trudging forward, he suddenly bends the elbow of his outstretched arm and strikes it against his side, the gesture has the force of a knife meant to wound.

We don’t ascribe roles to these two or wonder what they are doing. When Koma and Eiko press into confrontations with each other’s bodies in Raven, you see—as you do in others of their dances—two people bound together for better or for worse. Their most intimate move consists of bending their knees and leaning together until they can push their heads into the crook of each other’s shoulder. At the end, when they do this, Koma sinks lower, until his face is pressed to Eiko’s thigh; she pushes his head down further and pulls his hips up until he’s squashed against her in an inverted V. Then she pushes down on him, fast and hard, and he collapses. Silence. Is he dead? Eiko, on the floor again, rolls and arches toward him. He stirs. The end.

Some years ago, when I was interviewing Eiko and Koma, I mentioned that several of their most recent dances seemed to be about death. If I’m remembering correctly, Eiko laughed and said that maybe all their dances were. But they are also about living and endeavoring to live, even when, in one of their earliest works (inspired perhaps by Hiroshima), they wore costumes that made them look as if their skin were peeling off and that they were held together by bandaging.

The video of the making of River(the site-specific version) shows footage of the rehearsals and first performances in the summer of 1995—upstate in the Schoharie Creek and then in the Delaware River). The performances began at dusk, and you see Koma maneuvering Eiko downstream and into view; she’s tangled in—one with—branches of driftwood, a white face in the black, unknowable water. But earlier in the documentary, when a sunlit rehearsal ends, the camera shows Koma beckoning toward the shore, and a second later, the couple’s two little sons race from their places on the bank and plunge gleefully into the river. In Eiko and Koma’s works, as in life, birth and regeneration hold hands with death.