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At The Service of Ambiguity, A Fragile Body – An interview with Eiko and Koma | Eiko + Koma
At The Service of Ambiguity, A Fragile Body – An interview with Eiko and Koma
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

At The Service of Ambiguity, A Fragile Body – An interview with Eiko and Koma

  • THEOFFCENTER, March 20, 2012
  • Isak Immanuel

Last week Isak Immanuel, Resident Artist at THEOFFCENTER, choreographer and maker of performance art sat down with Eiko & Koma,  Japanese-born choreographer/dancers.  What you’ll read here are excerpts of the interview.

“Among our articles of lazy hardware, I recommend the faucet that stops dripping when no one is listening to it.”  – Marcel Duchamp

Q:  The idea of a retrospective brings up many questions of how to interact with the past and memory, and also, what can be fully retrieved, redone, or is forgotten at the service of creating a history.  Over the past thirty years, your work has often engaged an altered sense of time, memory, environment, and also loss.  In a way, to retrospect could be seen as an intricate play, almost as a sense to remember remembering.  With this thought, can you speak a little about your process and the idea of a retrospective?

Koma:  My attitude towards life is I want to forget everything, even what I just did five minutes ago. So very often, my personality, my character, even though some people write down the memory, and the dream they dreamed last night, I do not care so much, myself…

Eiko:  But in terms of remembering memory…  there is something, a bit vague, about our ancestry of memory, I mean to say it makes it sound a bit fake, but the minute we are lying down on the feathers, (in the work Fragile) and the feathers could feel like a nest, but the feathers also prick us – it is hard, it is not soft, we are not down jacket…. it is pricking.  So between the niceness of the feathers and the pricking of the feathers, and the feathers coming from different species, there is a definite sense of a memory, not from my own time, but a little larger…

Koma: Body remembers, not my head.

Eiko:  Well, I don’t really trust how much my body remembers, it is more like there is a really vague feeling about a larger time, like many stories say “Long, long time ago..”  (laughing)  …not a specific memory that I could have been a little bird, not as specific…  I tend to say it is not as much about memory, but it is liberating for me to not have a story…

Koma:  Almost instead of trying to remember, it is more liberating to forget.

Eiko: Koma does not really make his dance as a personal expression, nor I.  We don’t really make our own personal dances.  So even when I was twenty-three years old, I was not making a dance as a choreographer who is twenty-three year old who talks about her feelings. We have never done that.  So in a dance it is more like we are belonging to some larger landscape together.  So in that belonging, either you are twenty, or fifty-five, or ninety-seven, you are belonging, nevertheless.  You belong no more or no less then any other insect.

Q: Within this, what does the role of an elder mean to you?  How do you take that role or not take that role, and how is it different being in America, Japan, or another part of the world?

Koma:  We teach… but we never try to have a disciple.

Eiko:  We play a role as a field person.  Our existence belongs to the field.  I am a mother of two grown up children (sort of grown up: 27, 23). It is more important to me what their ambitions are, compared to what they are in their field.  In other words when I teach, I really care less whether I am teaching to a dancer or to a social worker.  In fact, to be honest with you, I am often much more sympathetic, and put more a sense of mind to, if it is a social worker who is having their own set of problems, and can use what ever it is I have to offer.  If it is a young artist, I trust they are on their own.  It is not my role at all.  I don’t really believe in…  since I am older, why am I supposed to know more about what he or she is pursuing…  I am just a stranger (to her or to him).  I have never had too much respect to the older artist unless that particular artist’s work speaks to us and shakes us.  That has nothing to do with age.  I really don’t believe the older the better or the older the wiser.  I really don’t believe it.  In fact our generation who had come from the activism, end of sixty’s activism, in a way we really have not become seniors.  We still have lots of burning desires.  We are very angry towards the society in many different ways.  We are not wise.  I refuse to have the role as elder as wise.  I do appreciate that I have been living and we do share the world (with younger artists).  But, I put more passion to my young friends who are not artists.  If they are artists, I kind of feel they know what they want to do, so just do it.  Young artists steal as much as they need.  Eat what they need to eat.  But I am interested in what the younger generation wants to do and how they want to deal with this particular society, not necessarily through art but of course art could be a part of that dealing.  Right now, this country is in a very difficult place, and Japan is too.  As we get older, we are desperately realizing how our own generation has created so many problems.  We wonder how the younger generation might survive, grapple with, and pave this particular society.

Q: In the work Fragile, the staging of your bodies and Kronos is quite close, in terms of proximity.  This presents a strong contrast, as your bodies as dancers and the musician’s sense of body is very different – in regards to a sense of delicacy, thought, noise of the body, and its relationship to time.  Can you speak a little about this difference and the spatial negotiation?

Eiko:  It is very different.  The musician’s body is…. busy, and somewhat utilitarian.  That is the beauty of a musician’s movement.  They are serving something more sacred than ambiguity.  The music has a prewritten score conceived and articulated by someone else. Musicians honor that person’s creativity and make that score absolute to the degree.  That makes music different from people’s sigh…  or birds singing, that have no absolute.  And that part, we don’t understand as dancers. I have no understanding why musicians want to do that. But I have a very deep respect to their commitment and to the beauty that is being created.  Kronos, and the kind of composers they work with, are also coming to embrace the sighs and birds singing as something that runs deep in our hearing and existence from so long ago that are larger than human’s creativity.  But they do that through precise notes and score (though nowadays, I also know the score can be more loosely written time to time). I have witnessed how they work on somebody’s score and make it their own with many written notes and coloring. Then the composer’s score is transformed to their own preparation for their performance, phrase to phrase, moment to moment, but they still have this piece of paper. Dancers do not move with notes on paper.  The kind of dancers we are, we don’t even follow a choreography the way it is usually meant, we don’t dance like people who are choreographed, we don’t do the unison movement or predetermined shift of body.  I have never followed a precise score in my life except when we have some phrases and nuances our bodies remember and crave. That happens with older pieces but compared to what musicians do, what we do is so ambiguous.

Koma:  People can see instantly.  I don’t want to put them in an orchestra pit, or upstage, or downstage.  We collaborated once before, about ten years ago.  We were very excited but some of our friends did not like it… they said, “you don’t need Kronos, you are different. Kronos is like Rolls Royce and you are like chickens in the farmer’s chicken cage”. (laughing)

Eiko:  You know, what we do is so ambiguous, so useless, so purposeless, so nothing, so no value… people come to see nothing, or close to nothing, our wrinkles, our thighs, thats nothing, and I like it.  Every time I see Kronos, I feel this very strong sense of deep respect.  Which is good. They are really quite committed to their own art form.  That is very wonderful.  But boy, are we different.  We are committed to our ambiguity.  When we performed River, it was a large theater where Kronos and us existed with distance (between one another in the space). so this time (with the work Fragile), Kronos visits us in that small chicken cage or our humble hut and sit very close to us so we are much more intimate.

Q: In your dance work, what is the value of silence?

Koma:  Silence. (nodding his head)

Eiko:  I like silence.  Because there is no such thing as silence.  Silence is when we actually hear more things.  When we here the people’s rustling, here people’s walking.  Silence makes us very noticeable.    I think it is good for people. I kind of feel it, how people appreciate this sense of not being entertained.  Silence kind of forces people to be more reflective, more watchful.  When the music is going on you are kind of driven by the music.  Your observation is colored by the music.  All of a sudden silence comes and you are left on your own, with your own devices.  Which I love.  I love that little sense of uncomfortableness.

Q: In the work Fragile, you set up a strong visual and listening space.  Here silence and voyeurism make for a significant part.  In this regard, Marcel Duchamp’s “Etant donnés (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas)”, seems a significant association.  What interests you about voyeurism and Duchamp’s “Etant donnés?


Eiko: The idea came from a cave, a house, but it is a poor cave, so there are many holes.  There is a wind blowing.  We did not treat our drops (the hanging set design) as walls, we are hanging the drops in the air off the ground.  Many holes, inside and outside, there is air going through under and above these drops, and this makes the person’s feeling of being inside or outside very different.  So the inside and outside people are also connected.  We see them peeking.  Sometimes I see them, go right into eye to eye.  And some people get scared and they leave.  The other day, I was closing my eyes, dancing, moving, and then I opened up my torso, and then ever so slightly I opened my eye, and there was a guy about ten feet away, and I kind of looked at him, and then he fainted.  I felt so bad…

Koma: But the next day, he came back and stayed for the full four hours!  (laughing)

Eiko:  He perhaps came to find out what was the cause of his fainting. That was so interesting… In the Walker Art Center, we were doing this everyday, and there was this guy who came every morning, for the full two weeks. He would come like 10:30am when there was nobody else in the gallery or just a few people.  And he always sat in the same place where no shifting light would give us his front view. There he watched.  Every morning I could see this same silhouette though I could not see his expression but I could feel his gaze. It was really odd and sometimes a little creepy.  But it was interesting and intense.  I often wondered while performing and while being watched by him what he might be thinking and seeing. Who is he? By calling the piece Naked and performing naked so close to viewers in such intimate space, we do invite this wider interpretations and expectations along with voyeurism. Who comes and with what type of expectations, we do not know —oh, naked bodies or oh art…?  And does this mater?  Even people who are watching us inside are being watched by people outside who are watching through the holes. However, these eyes are also noticed by people inside and by us (Eiko & Koma) and we watch these eyes back. During the long hours of performance I try to see each person’s eyes one at a time though I also move with my eyes closed.  So there are many layers of watching(gaze) going on.

Q: The first dance you created and began to perform outside of Japan, in Europe and then the United States, is entitled White Dance (in 1976).  The title, as I understand, came from your desire to differentiate your work from Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh, regarded as a ‘dance of darkness’.  In part, this brings to mind, for myself, Joseph Cornell’s renouncement of many of the Surrealist’s preoccupation with “black magic”, claiming that he only wished to make “white magic” with his art.  There has been a lot of analysis on this distinction for him in regards to ideas of American art, but also as he was someone a little between worlds, influences, and a sense of time, there remains ambiguity.  In your own work, why was there the need for a sense of distinction from Hijikata’s ‘dance of darkness’ and how has this association, ambiguity, and a sense of lightness changed over the years living and creating work in the United States?

Eiko:  I like that expression of white magic, because black magic is a very heavy tone, kind of authoritative in its own way.  But white magic makes it like…huh!  (making a poof like animated gesture).

Koma: We saw Cornell first in a retrospective at MOMA in 1977.  We like him…

Eiko:  Yes, we like him. We are a little like tiny figures in one of his boxes.  But we did not know anything then about Cornell’s work or his vision of “white magic” (in 1976).  But we did intend to name our performances White Dance as our own departure from Hijikata or Butoh groups, that is not to say we respect Hijikata and Ohno less but as young artist-wanna-bees, we just wanted to have our own place, own thinking and own experiments. We were not thinking to become choreographers or dancers we were just experimenting to live and giving us some experiences to work as artists in foreign lands. White is a color of no commitment to any dogma or belief system. It is both a surrender (not in a negative sense) to what is to happen and accepting challenges.  White as open and white as possibilities upon which we can draw our own lines.

    “No moon was seen
    But moonlight flooded everywhere,
    The sky like a layer of salt,
    The earth too dim and quiet

    …I know that I am nothing more
    Than a tiny shadow in the moonlight night.”

    -  Mitsuharu Kaneko in 1948
    (excerpt from the poem “Moth” in the
    program of Eiko and Koma’s White Dance)