Dancing in Tune With the Earth

Eiko & Koma take Cambodian Stories on their latest tour.

Eiko & Koma in Offering, a portable work developed after 9/11. Photo courtesy Eiko & Koma.

It's a breezy night in late May 2004. People are still gathering at the gate of New York's St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, hoping to grab a chair or a cushion on the ground for Eiko & Koma's free performance in the churchyard. Some have been following this duo's career since the two arrived here from Japan in the 1970s; others are clearly first-time viewers.

When Eiko & Koma, their limbs and faces white-painted, have been lying motionless in the dirt for at least 20 minutes, a waiting spectator whips out a cell phone and urges a friend to hurry over and see this event, which he struggles to define: “It's not 'we're gonna dance'—like dance dance." For sure.

When the performer-choreographers first showed up in New York in 1976, presenting their White Dance, they were a shocking, mesmerizing anomaly. Americans hadn't yet been exposed to butoh, or we might have linked their work to that radical postwar Japanese dance form. But who among us had ever seen barely moving dancers clad in what looked like ashen, peeling skin, their feet turned in, their eyes staring into dark distances (Trilogy, 1979–81)? Or watched a willowy young woman sway sinuously with myriad Q-tips stuck through her hair (Before the Cock Crows, 1978)?

During their early years in America, the pair had to identify themselves in programs as “Eiko (female)" and “Koma (male)." Today, after nearly 30 years as U.S. residents, touring here and abroad, conducting their “Delicious Movement Workshops," receiving honors (a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Bessies, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Samuel Scripps Award), they are a known quantity—not categorized as modern dance, postmodern dance, or butoh—just two unique and powerful artists.

They were unorthodox from the beginning. Enrolled in different Tokyo universities as political science majors, they found their way separately to the studio of butoh innovator Tatsumi Hijikata in 1971, seeking respite from the chaos, violence, and endless discussions that marked the student activism of the late 1960s in Japan. But they never became part of Hijikata's inner circle of disciples, nor did they cleave for long to butoh co-founder Kazuo Ohno. They also felt like outsiders in the ballet and modern dance classes that they took while knocking around Europe, performing where they could. Luckily, they came under the wing of Manja Chmiel, a former assistant to German Ausdruckstanz pioneer Mary Wigman, who urged them to forget about solo careers and continue to develop work as a team.

They took her advice, collaborating only with lighting designers and composers, except in rare instances (they invited their friend Anna Halprin, West Coast guru of postmodern dance, then 81, to participate in the 2001 Be With, and their two sons Yuta and Shin appeared in certain pieces when they were little).

A work by Eiko & Koma may unspool at a glacial pace over a hour. Cause and effect are often ephemeral. You can't be sure, say, that Eiko is reaching toward Koma, only that she is very gradually unfolding her arm. Imagine watching a fern push up through the earth via time-lapse photography, or ice melting into water. Some spectators, unable or unwilling to abandon their expectations about performance, may walk out. The choreographers accept that with equanimity.

The two-and-a-half years in the early 1980s that they spent in a derelict farmhouse in the Catskills fostered their slowed-down sense of time and honed their perception of man as a part of nature. Not, as Koma once put it, that they tried to “[make] a tree dance...or move like a flower;" but to understand “how we could be right by [a] flower or how I could be right by [a] tree without disturbing them." Snow (1999), River (1995), Wind (1993), Tree (1988)...these dances, like their titles, evoke elemental forces. The performers blend with, grow into, the environments that they painstakingly build or find. Twisting, burrowing, splaying, their bodies and limbs suggest both primal humanity and non-human forms. In Night Tide (1984), their curled, naked torsos roll slowly, slowly toward each other, as if under the influence of mysterious planetary forces, to touch briefly and collapse. Humans mating. Stones taking aeons to wash up on a beach. In some works, they struggle to achieve together some simple task, like rising. In others, they are unutterably alone, as in the 1984 Elegy, when they stand naked and wilting in separate shallow pools of dark water.

They dance slow but talk fast. When I sit with them in their New York apartment to speak about their recent and current projects, the words tumble out as they laugh, argue, and finish each other's sentences. They've been developing free performances since 1995, beginning with River. Spectators assemble along a riverbank, and the two performers float downstream, tangling with branches and each other, eventually drifting out of sight. In their 1998 installation Breath, they set up an environment with video in a small space in the Whitney Museum and occupied it for four weeks, seven hours a day (with breaks).

The Caravan Project (initiated in 1999) involves hauling a trailer that opens on four sides to form a small “stage." Spectators at the chosen site can walk around the trailer to study the effect of changing angles and light. The project involves collaborating with savvy parks department officials and presenters in various cities. Says Eiko, “If we were in downtown Chicago, we'd perform for three hours because people come and go. In Tompkins Square [New York], we performed for one hour, because that's a pretty artsy audience."

9/11 reinforced their urge to bring people together for free performances. In 2000, they had been given 12 months of studio space on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Says Eiko of the portable Offering (2002), “The whole idea is to create a place where people share their sense of mourning."

Public spaces are not the only places where Eiko & Koma may be seen gratis. They have adapted pieces for short performances in senior citizens' centers (where they neither dance naked nor wear white makeup: “We need to be quite well-dressed in those places and we need to kind of look beautiful," Eiko jokes). This past fall, in a ward for seriously ill patients at Duke University Hospital, they gave brief performances (three to five minutes) for one patient at a time—dancing in a room's doorway or the portion of corridor visible from a bed. As Koma remarks, simply requesting one of these available private showings is a way for patients, trapped in a situation where they often feel helpless, “to show power."

This spring marks the culmination of a project that will play conventional theaters in the U.S. for two months: Cambodian Stories, An Offering of Painting and Dance, with music by Cambodian composer Sam-Ang Sam. Joining Eiko & Koma will be 10 young members of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh. In 2004, with support from the Asian Cultural Council, Eiko & Koma spent three weeks in Cambodia, performing, talking, and giving workshops at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, whose director, Daravuth Ly, had seen one of the couple's New York performances. They returned in 2005 and will go again this year. The project involves not just teaching and choreographing but raising funds for the school.

As Cambodians struggle to recover from the horrific depredations of Pol Pot's genocidal regime on culture and the economy, these gifted young people (18 to 22) at the Institute study traditional Cambodian painting styles, with their filigreed detail. Some may become artists of stature; some may forge profitable careers creating souvenirs. Now another career might be possible.

How do Eiko & Koma teach dance to these young painters? Very subtly. Koma remarks that when he and Eiko studied with Ohno, they didn't learn a technique. “He never taught us how to become dancers...I learned a manner, a stance, also a feel." The spirit, the feelings, and the movements are there in the students' bodies and have only to be uncovered, freed. And, of course, Eiko & Koma's performing, amazing to the Cambodians, suggested new possibilities, just as seeing the pictures of works by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock that the two brought to Phnom Penh helped the students understand that they might paint differently—bigger, perhaps, and faster—without losing their cultural identity.

In a touching video document, each student responds to a question about his or her future. Almost all of them say, in one way or another, “I want to be an artist. And I want to be a performer." This spring, cities from New York to California and Florida to Connecticut will see them as both. As part of the choreography, they will create one large painting on the stage floor and another hanging vertically, both intricately linked to the dancing. And they will have the distinction of appearing in Eiko & Koma's first group work, joining these two remarkable artists' quest “to be accountable in today's changing world."

Deborah Jowitt is the principal dance critic at the Village Voice. Her most recent book is Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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