A partnership of nearly 40 years brings a sense of permanence, even to dance, the most ephemeral of arts. Since moving to the United States in 1976, Japanese choreographers Eiko and Koma have created a body of work that includes more than 36 pieces both for the concert stage and for specific sites from galleries to rivers to a park near Ground Zero. On February 11 and 12, Tigertail brings to Miami the Eiko and Koma career retrospective that has been touring the country since last fall.
A retrospective is a rare undertaking for choreographers, and all the more remarkable because Eiko, now 58, and Koma, 62, create work for their own bodies – often about their bodies. Staged anew, amid the digital specters of past performances, these works confirm the power of the presence of flesh and breath.
Retrospective Project I: Regeneration, presented this week at the American Dance Festival, offered a piquant taste of the full gallery show that opened at Wesleyan University last year and culminates next fall at the Walker Art Center. This Monday through Wednesday three large video screens played landmark works in the lobby of the Reynolds Theater in Durham, North Carolina, surrounded by photographs of earlier work and elements from stage sets. Walking through the cozy space, audience members often found themselves between projector and screen, momentarily caught in the hazy image of a past performance.
For longtime fans, the work onstage must also have been covered by the haze of memory: Eiko and Koma presented a sampler including “Raven” (2010), choreographed for the retrospective, then moving back through time to the mid-career “Night Tide” (1984), and closing with “White Dance” (1976), the first work they performed in the United States. Seeing Eiko and Koma for the first time, I found myself mesmerized by the presence of their bodies, from the moment in “Raven” when the spot came up on Eiko’s prone figure, center stage, not moving. Slowly she turned on her side, shifted to a hip, reached for a clutch of reeds. The slower the movement, the more palpable the force of her being.
That life force was highlighted by the primitive set. A rough canvas scorched with burn holes hung on the back wall, above a circle of sand fringed with long red reeds. At Eiko’s feet a pile of black feathers suggested the raven, as did the bird’s caw that broke the silence and introduced the drumming and chanting composed by Pueblo musician Robert Mirabal. When Koma appeared, he grappled with Eiko, overpowering her to take the sheaths of reeds from her hands. He tossed her over his shoulder and carried her, only to fall to his knees later, nestling against her thighs, before collapsing beneath her.
“Night Tide” too revealed the elemental struggle of one being to respond to another. Nude in two pools of the lights, the dancers appeared in the body’s most elemental form: faces pressed against the floor, they were all buttocks, spine, and black hair. To a deep sea gurgle, cut at times with the distant wail of a siren, the spines crawled toward each other, revealing face in profile only as Eiko hung briefly from Koma’s neck, before they crawled back to their separate spheres.
“White Dance,” the earliest work, depended more on theater and artifice. Leaping and lifting his knee like a comic Kabuki figure, Koma danced around Eiko, at one famous moment covering the floor with the dusty contents of a sack of potatoes. The piece is great fun, and a great foil for the more stripped down pieces, though it is easy to imagine that there may have been more of flirtation and less of comedy when “White Dance” was performed in 1976.
So often imagination is all that is left in the wake of dance. Staged when the choreographers are still vital, Eiko and Koma’s retrospective preserves to an unprecedented degree their legacy to dance without losing the ephemeral force of their presence.