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Koma Alone (Except for All the Dancing Spirits in the Room) | Eiko + Koma
Koma Alone (Except for All the Dancing Spirits in the Room)

Koma Alone (Except for All the Dancing Spirits in the Room)

  • The New York Times, May 9, 2017
  • Gia Kourlas

Koma Otake has been dealing with a foot injury for nearly a decade. So some show-and-tell was in order on a recent Sunday. In a parked car in the East Village, he took off his shoes and socks to display his ankles to a reporter.

“I thought that I wouldn’t be able to dance in a theater again, so I started to paint a lot,” said Koma, who is known by his first name. “But due to a miracle — yes,” he interrupted himself with a giggle, “a miracle happened.”

One-half of the acclaimed Japanese performance duo Eiko and Koma, he has now started a solo career — just as Eiko did when Koma was first unable to dance. And technically, it was surgery that got him back on his feet.

Beginning on Thursday, Koma presents “The Ghost Festival,” his first multidisciplinary solo presentation, at Danspace Project. The show begins inside; after the intermission, the audience will go outside to watch Koma dance in and on top of a trailer. His artwork will also be featured: 24 painted panels in the trailer and in the theater space. It is truly a one-man show.

“I created the set, I painted the canvas and, of course, I choreographed and dance it,” he said. “If I can say this” — he hesitated for a few seconds — “I am proud of myself. I was injured. I was so disappointed and depressed. I was frustrated. So in a way, what I am saying here is that I am embracing a new creative direction and I’m excited about where it is taking me.”

This journey is personal for Koma, who was born in Japan in 1948. “The Ghost Festival” pays homage to his teachers and to dancers important to him, including Kazuo Ohno, a founder of Butoh, a dance form that emerged after World War II. The show also takes inspiration from a dance festival that honors ancestral spirits, Owara Kaze no Bon, in the Toyama Prefecture in northwestern Japan, near Koma’s birthplace, Niigata.

The festival has been happening “every summer for the last 600 years,” Koma said. “Bon is a Buddhist holiday. Every year, people invite the spirit of deceased family members into their homes and for several days they spend time at home with their spirits.”

There is dancing over three nights that lasts until dawn. The movement — simple and repetitive — is performed in a counterclockwise motion around a fire and is passed down from one generation to the next.

“This is an interesting part that I love,” Koma said. “The dancers imagine their right outer side as the world of the living. The center” — or the left side of the body if moving counterclockwise — “is for the lost spirits. So all dancers are a go-between between a mediator of this world and another world to come.”

In “The Ghost Festival,” Koma sees himself as the mediator: He embeds the work with veiled references to his own dance ancestors, letting his movement continually changes texture, from delicate and brash to dreamy.

“Ghost, for me, means a lost spirit,” he said. “So it refers to many artists — the spirits of my seniors. ‘The Ghost Festival’ is me dancing with them in the space, or their spirits dancing in the space.”

The set features two chairs connected by long bars that frame two sides of the stage. They also serve as ballet barres, which Koma uses for support when he needs it for, say, a plié. Lately, what he thought was his healthy ankle has been acting up. “I feel constant pain,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can last. That’s why I need the barre. I can cheat!”

Known for duets that placed their slowly moving, incandescent bodies on stages, in museums and in nature, Eiko and Koma were a spellbinding pair. But in their solo performances, a new Koma and a new Eiko have emerged: They are even more potent, more raw, more electric.

Will he and Eiko dance together again? “Who knows?” Koma said. “It might happen. But now, both of us are enjoying this moment.”

“The Ghost Festival” pays homage to Koma’s teachers and to dancers who inspired him.

Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace’s executive director and chief curator, has been watching them for the past 40 years. “I guess the assumption is you might be diminished without the other,” she said, “but I feel like the opposite happened with each of them. It’s unleashed something else.”

For Koma, that something else relates to a lineage of dance spirits that includes his teacher, Takaya Eguchi, a modern dancer who studied with the German Expressionists Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban. Wigman died before Eiko and Koma could meet her, but before they moved to New York, in 1976, they worked in Europe with Manja Chmiel, a Wigman disciple, and came to discover the German dancers Harald Kreutzberg and Dore Hoyer, and, later, Kurt Jooss and Pina Bausch.

“Even when I do unconventional things on the stage,” Koma said, “I am nonetheless a part of a very large school of modern dance.”

By the time Eiko and Koma arrived in New York, it was too late for them to experience Judson Dance Theater, the experimental collective that flourished in the 1960s. But its members were still around. “I saw Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Meredith Monk,” he said. “I saw Lucinda Childs dancing alone in silence at St. Mark’s Church. She ignored the audience. There was no music and no climax. You know, very Judson.”

While the Judson aesthetic was different than his, Koma said, he could sense the artists’ passion and fantasy. “I liked their spirit,” he continued, “and their spirit meant: Find your dance.”

And for Koma, dance was everywhere, even at the River Café, where he worked during his early days in New York. “I saw a very drunk Nureyev dance at the bar,” Koma said. “So I have found everything that I have needed for my dance. Even a drunk Nureyev. It’s all here.”