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A Performance of Relentless Stillness, With Live Score | Eiko + Koma
A Performance of Relentless Stillness, With Live Score
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

A Performance of Relentless Stillness, With Live Score

  • The New York Times, March 16, 2012
  • Jeanne Carstensen

Eiko, the female half of Eiko and Koma, the contemporary movement arts duo who have performed together for some 40 years, hurled her small frame onto an oblong pile of canvas and feathers on the floor of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“Naked, naked!” she said mischievously, gesturing to herself to indicate how she and Koma will appear in “Fragile,” a new four-hour performance with a score performed live onstage by the Kronos Quartet at the arts center through Saturday.

The evening was an informal preview of the couple’s two-week Yerba Buena residency, which also includes performances of three iconic early works and a series of workshops and other events.

Just as quickly, Koma darted from standing to lying down on the opposite side of the nestlike pile. Then he jumped up again and ran to the other side of a large backdrop covered in feathers and salt suspended from the ceiling.

“This is what people do who don’t want to see the naked bodies,” he said with a teasing tone, peeking back at Eiko through one of the many holes in the canvas as if he were embarrassed.

If anything characterizes Eiko and Koma’s art, it is the slow, even glacial pace of their movements — sometimes so slow they are almost imperceptible, like ice melting. They describe their work, which evokes a deep connection with nature and deals with elemental themes like nakedness, hunger and death, as “infused with relentless stillness that subverts and transcends our everyday notions of time and space.”

But when they are not performing, they are anything but still — flitting around like hummingbirds. “We look so serious,” Eiko said. “But we really aren’t.”

Eiko and Koma are in San Francisco at the tail end of their three-year Retrospective Project, a series of performances, exhibits and publications examining their four decades of making art.

They have been residents of New York since 1977. They were born in Japan and arrived in the United States from Europe via San Francisco in 1976. Influenced by Butoh, the postwar avant-garde dance movement in Japan — where they studied briefly with Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno — and other expressionist styles, they quickly fell in with the San Francisco experimental dance scene that was exploding at that time.

“It was love at first sight,” said Anna Halprin, the dancer and choreographer who founded the Dancer’s Workshop on Divisadero Street in 1955. “Their art was completely unique. I invited them to my studio to rehearse and just gave them the key.”

Deep bonds were formed and many of their collaborators over the years have been from the Bay Area, including George Coates (“Double Vision”), Bob Carroll (“Nurse’s Song”), Anna Halprin (“Be With”) and the Kronos Quartet, which performed a score by Somei Satoh for “River” in 1997.

The artists remained friends and in 2010 in New York, Eiko and Koma performed an early version of “Naked,” the work that served as a precursor to “Fragile,” for David Harrington, Kronos’s founder and first violinist.

The show brought Mr. Harrington to tears. “I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly emotional this is,” he said of the experience of sitting just a few feet away from his friends’ naked bodies, now around 60 years old.

“I realized that I was witnessing an absolute center of life, where all layers of protection are removed, where time is irrelevant,” Mr. Harrington wrote in the 2011 catalog of Eiko and Koma’s work published by the Walker Art Center, which also commissioned “Naked.”

The idea of turning “Naked” from a “living installation” (with the artists present whenever the gallery is open) into “Fragile,” a four-hour performance with live music performed by Kronos, was born.

For the next year and a half, Mr. Harrington worked on creating the score.

Inspired in part by the three events Eiko and Koma told him had most influenced their lives — the atomic bombing of Japan, the 1967-68 student riots, and the tsunami and radiation leaks of 2011 — he dug into the quartet’s repertory and chose music from Wagner, Mahler, Webern, Schubert and others. He also added sound samples, including tsunami destruction reports and the voices of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Lyndon B. Johnson.

He thought of the music as “an offering to them, their nakedness, what they bring to life.”

The offering is in some ways a challenging one. There is an interesting artistic tension between the string quartet, a refined product of Western civilization, and Eiko and Koma.

To a large degree, Eiko explained, their performance resists the music, which has limitations in the way it is structured and pitched for our species. “We take a special pleasure in thinking about ourselves as beyond the human being,” Eiko said.

Mr. Harrington said the experience was unlike any concert they had done before. He designed the score to have a shape over the four-hour performance, but it “doesn’t have a big coda or anything.” The audience is welcome to wander in and out.

“I told David, we don’t even need the music,” Eiko said. “As a performer I’m not much more than a slime or a maggot.”