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Martha Sherman on The Ghost Festival | Eiko + Koma
Martha Sherman on The Ghost Festival
Photo by William Johnston

Dancing in the Dark

  • dancelog.nyc, May 19, 2017
  • Martha Sherman

In a magnetic, yet winsome solo, Koma Otake captured many hearts on a rainy Saturday night at Danspace. Otake has danced with his wife and partner, Eiko Otake, for decades billed as a pair by their first names, Eiko and Koma. They created extended performance pieces that relied on evocative environments and slow but dense, interlocked movement. Each have branched out in recent years, as Eiko created her acclaimed “Body in Places” series, including a month of performances with Danspace in 2016. Koma’s performing work has been more exploratory; in “The Ghost Festival,” he comes to a brief, sweet pause.

“The Ghost Festival” is credited as “an installation and dance conceived, designed, and performed by Koma Otake,” and every element of that combination was essential to the atmosphere of the event, including the sets and art banners. In the central Danspace platform, a bright square pane of light separated Otake from the audience, though the overhead lights stayed on for the first act. A simple set of wooden bars, vaguely torii-shaped, were the set. The high central bar on side legs served to hold an ambiguous banner, long and white with a black design that evoked figures and landscape – but only just. Heavy black sandbags held the banner up on long cords; later they served as pillows and anchors for Otake’s body.

As originally choreographed, the second half of the performance was in the outside courtyard of St. Mark’s Church, danced around a trailer lined with additional white banners. On this rainy night, the performance was moved inside, although Eiko lit candles in the trailer so the audiences could see the images there in the rain, banners with textile and yarn figures, not quite identifiable, but sensual and evocative. That Otake had to reconstruct the feel and the movement for the inside stage seemed like just another flexible clause in his deeply personal offering.

Koma Otake in “ The Ghost Festival.” © Ian Douglas.
There were ghosts everywhere, all of them benign. The most obvious was Charlie Chaplin. Otake was only short steps from the innocent, bumbling everyclown that Chaplin created. Otake seemed on the verge of collapsing in battered black shoes. More than the shoes and the movement, though, was the sweetness. Otake’s demeanor was earnest, with a far-off look in his eyes as his delicate hands wound together, and his fingers splayed in sculptural poses. But every once in a while, a small smile would play at the corners of his mouth, the eyes would twinkle, and the solemnity melted.

Tango was a perfect accompaniment for those contrasts of mood Like tango, Otake’s movement choices were deep, dramatic, often edging on tragic, but then a small collapse or twist happened that shifted all, briefly, into play. His skittering moves around the light wooden bars that surrounded him turned into graceful collapse and recovery.

The opening of each act was slightly different and not tango-accompanied. Otake’s initial entrance was to Jacques Brel’s plaintive “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Don’t Leave Me). The dancer’s large black overcoat was like a partner, gently sliding wings of fabric lifted up over his arms and back: Otake shapeshifting with his stooped shoulders and sad clown face.

Just as forlorn was his opening to the second half, a slow entrance on the kabuki-like black runway, this time in a translucent white ghostly costume, danced to a traditional Japanese folk song. His hands seemed to come from that tradition, too, stylized and flattened with the fingers arching back, like ink brush strokes at the end of his hands.

Koma Otake in “ The Ghost Festival.” © Ian Douglas.
Koma brought other ghosts to his festival, as well. When he lay on the ground in the white floating costume stretched out in front of a textured figure on a banner, there was a whiff of Petrouchka about him. With his long, lightly graying dark hair shifting around his face, Otake might have been a Japanese version of a 19th century Romantic poet: Keats in motion. And those shoes had more variations of lives in them than most of us ever live. Battered and loose, they flapped around his feet, as his feet rolled on edges, twisting his shoes with them. In the second act, they were wrapped in light tape, but just as abused and just as tenderly preserved.

The brief moments, the fleeting images all added to an evocative parade of the selves that Otake carried in the magic of his body and face. “The Ghost Festival” was all him, but it invited all of our ghosts, too. Treat them tenderly, he taught us all evening. They preserve us.