Naked Village Voice
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

Eiko and Koma Travel Slowly Into Dreams

  • Village Voice, March 30, 2011
  • Deborah Jowitt

Like Noh and Japanese butoh, the works of Eiko and Koma unfold slowly. But until you’ve seen the two of them perform, or lain nose to the ground to watch a snail cross a patch of grass, you may not have fully experienced slowness. Their moving and beautiful Naked: A Living Installation doesn’t just transform a sixth-floor studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center; it alters your breathing and your sense of time, as well as prolonging anticipation. Will Koma’s foot actually reach Eiko’s knee, or will she begin to draw away from him before that happens?

The exhibit in the adjoining studio prepares you. If you look deep into any of the five squared-off, chest-high black columns there, you’ll see videos of the pair in earlier dances that they performed unclothed. They lie in water, on leaves, upended against a chain link fence. Their images swim in a shallower tank that looks like a fishpond adjoining another that displays a curling assemblage that might be burnt paper.

Naked attracted around 8,000 viewers during its premiere season at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center (which commissioned the work). Throughout November 2010, Eiko and Koma were on view in their installation—an important part of the pair’s ongoing three-year retrospective—six days a week during museum hours from (11 a.m. to 5 p.m). At BAC, they perform Tuesday through Friday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (with a rest break). The fact that the event is free encourages people who may want to pay only a short visit, although, after watching Eiko and Koma for a while, you may not be sure what “short” is.

To experience Nakedup close and not just through holes in the heavy paper walls that surround the living installation on three sides, you enter a created “room.” Those walls and its paper floor are strewn with black feathers and pitted with holes made by scorching. In the middle of the space, ringed by dark earth, Eiko and Koma lie on a pile of feathers. High above them, suspended bundles of black strips stir in the breeze from an unseen fan, altering the patterns of light. The lighting itself (adapted by David Ferri from the design at the Walker) slowly morphs—sometimes flickering—from cool and dim to golden or white and back again. From the darkness above, water drips intermittently onto the soil.

In almost all Eiko and Koma’s pieces, they merge with an environment—growing into it, feeding off it in some way. At BAC, their pale, dirt-marked bodies stand out among the dark feathers like mushrooms on the forest floor. Closer to them than usual, we see every tiny move—the way a feather gets caught between two of Eiko’s fingers, the slight settling down of Koma’s buttocks. You could count the vertebrae on their spines. Viewers come and go, finding seats on the single row of benches or standing behind them or sitting on the floor. Some draw what they see on paper provided in the antechamber.

The performers are naked in the most profound sense of the word. They’re hairless, except for the black tangles on their heads. For a few uncomfortable seconds, staring at Eiko’s lean haunch, I see a skinned animal carcass—as if she once had fur. When they’re still, they look dead, discarded. Although naked, they don’t cater to the prurient. Koma twists subtly in and out of an almost fetal position, and only Eiko exposes the front of her long, sinewy body.

The heap of feathers has a slight ridge at the center, as if it covers a fallen tree. And this is the barrier over which the two must reach if they are to touch each other. The more severe restriction is that they can’t sit up. Sometimes it seems as if touching—even mating—is their goal, but they neither fully understand how to do it, nor what they’ve accomplished when they do feel each other’s flesh. I think of just-born animals nosing their way to a nipple, falling back, trying again. Or creatures emerging from some primal sleep that has erased their memories. At one point, Koma has brought one knee face to face with Eiko’s lifted knee, and the two knees suddenly look like blind, featureless worms. Because the movement are so minimal, so slow, so controlled, I find my focus shifting like this from the whole picture to details and back. When Koma lifts one hand and moves it slowly toward where Eiko’s lies half-buried, his hand appears to be an independent sentient being.

The room feels alive with anticipation. Do we all wish for the two to connect with some semblance of finality? Eiko’s leg slides along Koma’s, the back of Koma’s hand brushes Eiko’s cheek—gently, clumsily, yet charged with erotic promise—then slips off. These people don’t know how to hold onto anything, nor, seemingly, do they want to.

They are slow, but time moves swiftly. When I think I must have been watching them for about 40 minutes, I find that an hour and 20 minutes have passed, and 10 is approaching. I stand and change my angle of vision. Eiko and Koma seem finally to be drawing closer, without any more withdrawals into what could be exhaustion or despair, and to rest with their hands touching. I begin to ache even more for them—for their vulnerability, their clumsiness, their persistence. I feel the prick of incipient tears. An usher quietly tells each of us that it’s time to leave. As I cast a glance backward, I imagine this man and this woman beginning to separate again, and hurry away, hoping that isn’t so.