Naked New Yorker
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

Bear Truths

  • New Yorker, April 11, 2011
  • Joan Acocella

When you go to Eiko and Koma’s “Naked”—it is playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through Saturday night—what you see is two bodies lying side by side on a mound of soil and feathers. So this is a scene from nature, but it is no pastoral idyll. The bodies are white, gaunt, and utterly naked. They move little, and slowly, and mostly just in relation to each other. Koma puts his foot on Eiko’s knee; she puts her arm inside his elbow. They don’t look at each other while they’re doing this. They seem to see not with their eyes but with their pores. Koma, at one juncture, hoists his buttocks into the air. Accustomed, by this point, to the glacial slowness of the couple’s movement, we see this action as intensely dramatic, like an Act II curtain. What will happen now? we wonder. What happens is that he puts his buttocks down, in a slightly different position.

Eiko and Koma have been making dance dramas like this for decades. “Naked” is part of what they have called their Retrospective Project, celebrating forty years of collaboration, thirty-five of them in New York. It includes not just performances but videos, photography shows, and other art. Eiko and Koma are not so much a dance duo as an arts organization. She writes; he paints, etc.

Eiko and Koma Otake, both born in Japan soon after the Second World War—she is fifty-nine, he is sixty-two—never had any intention of becoming theatre artists. In the nineteen-sixties, at their respective universities, they both studied political science. But in Japan, at that time, as in the United States and Europe, there was a widespread student-protest movement, mainly antiwar, mainly in response to the huge postwar military presence of the United States in Japan, a situation that de facto involved the Japanese in the Vietnam War. The students’ conflict with the authorities was nasty: tear gas, clubbings, jailings. Eiko and Koma were part of it. (Koma bound one of his professors with tape and threw him out of the classroom.) The two of them, independently, left university and turned to avant-garde dance, a form popular with Japanese radicals, since it seemed to them free from capitalism, commodification, conservatism, and conformity. They briefly worked in the studios of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, pioneers of the rather horrifying, anti-traditional style called Butoh. (It was in Hijikata’s studio, in 1971, that they met.) They got little attention from these masters, however, and so they moved to Germany, where there was still a remnant of the highly expressionist modern-dance movement that had been led by Mary Wigman before the Second World War. By now, Eiko and Koma were not just dancers but choreographers. In Hanover, they studied with Manja Chmiel, who had been Wigman’s assistant, and she taught them economy—how to find what they really wanted to say and then scrub away the rest. Eventually, the couple decided to go to New York, at that time the capital of experimental dance. To raise money for the trip, they returned to Japan and worked in a kindergarten; she as a teacher, he as a bus driver. At night, in the classroom, with the toys cleared away, they practiced a piece they had been working on for years, “White Dance.” (Last year, as part of their retrospective, they remounted it at Danspace Project. It was sort of a mess. They needed even more economy than Chmiel had taught them.)

They moved to New York in 1976, a time when many American vanguardists—preëminently John Cage—were still fascinated with Asian art. For five years, they had some success. Then, in 1981, they decided that they had been influenced by too many artists, and they left town, moving to a property in the Catskills. There, for two years, they lived with eight chickens, as Koma told Shoko Yamahata Letton (from whose master’s thesis, at Florida State University, much of this biographical material is drawn), and asked themselves what they really cared about. They found an answer in nature, the things that were around them. Hence the names of the dances that they now made: “Tree,” “Land,” “Grain,” “Rust,” and so on.

From this discovery, and from Japanese, German, and American minimalism, they evolved their performance style. First, they began to place enormous emphasis on sets, taken from nature: leaves, dirt, water. They also did site-specific work. “River,” a piece from 1995, was premièred in the Delaware River, with Eiko hanging on to a log. And they saw themselves as part of nature—something bumping out of the tree, the leaves, as slowly as changes take place in those elements. This sounds serene, wholesome. It wasn’t. When Eiko and Koma performed, they seemed to be in pain. Think of those war stories one hears in which, after a massacre, the arriving troops find, under a pile of corpses, an arm or a leg feebly waving, or a child crying. Take away the corpses, and there you have Eiko and Koma. This austerity is, or was, due in part to the fact that they possess almost no dance technique. They never had an opportunity to learn any. “Our
movement is basically same,” Eiko told Shoko Letton. “Embarrassingly same.” Like good craftsmen, they made a virtue of necessity.

Many people have likened the couple’s work to Butoh—a comparison that Eiko and Koma object to adamantly. In fact, they have a lot in common with Butoh: the naked body, the primitivism, the slowness, the note of horror. These similarities may be due not to descent from Butoh, however, but to the fact that they and Butoh descend from shared sources: above all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (“From Trinity to Trinity,” a book written by the Nagasaki survivor Kyoto Hayashi, and translated from the Japanese by Eiko, was recently published by Station Hill.) Furthermore, Eiko and Koma’s performances differ from Butoh in a number of important ways. Their limbs don’t make a great, beefy show, in the manner of Sankai Juku, the Butoh troupe that has been seen most often in the U.S. (Eiko holds her arms in bizarre, bent-back positions. How does she get them there? Should she see an orthopedist?) More crucially, the two of them do not ordinarily play the same roles. Koma looks like us. Things happen to him. Eiko is what happens. She is our ghost, our bad dream, our coming death. Finally, there is the subtlety, the knottedness, the ambiguity of their gestures. I must say that their shows, like Noh plays, are too long and too slow for me. I start thinking: Did I feed the cat? Did I send my aunt a birthday card? That experience is not so strong with “Naked,” because this piece is open-ended. You can come and go as you please. (Each night, Eiko and Koma perform for four to six hours, with one five-minute break.) But, however much you may zoom in and out, you are rewarded, when you zoom in, by the intensity of the proceedings. As Koma lifted his rear into the air, I stared into his navel for a long time—these people give you time—and I thought that if I could look into that dark hole a little longer I might discover a great deal about life.

This may be just a compensatory fantasy, a product of the audience torture so widely practiced by the avant-garde: since you’ve waited this long, there has to be a payoff. I don’t think so, though. Part of the reason my mind tends to wander in Eiko and Koma’s pieces is just the sheer, frightening concentration of what they do.

Ditto their nakedness. In the past, they have usually appeared with little clothing—maybe a loincloth for Koma, a sarong for Eiko. (She has long performed bare-breasted.) But maybe, at their age, they think that they can now perform completely nude without appealing to prurience. In any case, their exposed bodies—pale and skinny—push everything to the limit. Here is what they said to Alan Kriegsman, of the Washington Post:

When we perform, we like to imagine that each of us is a fresh fish which was just caught and is on the cutting board. The fish intuits that somebody will eat it. No room to be coquettish. The fish’s body is tight, shining blue, eyes wide open. No way to escape.

Who else, in contemporary dance, performs with this kind of directness—so cold and serious?