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Dance Matters: The Art of Taking It Slow

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa


Eiko & Koma in Naked. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell, Courtesy Walker Art Center.

 

 

For nearly 40 years, dancers Eiko & Koma have won widespread acclaim for embodiment of the tiniest details of inner and outer reality. The Japanese-born couple often present dance/installation works that embed slow micro-movements within physical environments carefully designed to evoke some essential, primal truth about the human animal. It’s like watching a forest change seasons.

 

Eiko & Koma—who presented Breath, a marathon “living” environmental installation in 1998 at New York's Whitney Museum—open a similar piece this month in Minneapolis as part of their three-year Retrospective Project. Commissioned by the Walker Art Center for its Event Horizon exhibition of works from the permanent collection, Naked is a collage of the dancers' bodies, light, video and organic materials.

 

The installation fills a sense-tingling room with scorched, cracked canvas smelling of fire. The cloth is hardened by a paste of sweet rice, textured by sand and big-grained sea salt, and strewn with rustling black feathers from Cambodia and Indonesia. At the heart of it all, the dancers offer their elemental, sensitive approach to stillness in motion and motion in stillness.

 

“People sometimes say that we move so slowly that we look like sculpture,” says Eiko. “But we resist treating our bodies as sculpture on a pedestal. If anything, the room extending all around us is what's sculpted, and we want the audience to consider the whole environment.”

 

Eiko & Koma—whose numerous awards include a Dance Magazine Award, two Bessies, a MacArthur and a Guggenheim—are noted for their uncanny ability to adapt to a variety of spaces, from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Joyce Theater to hospital wards, art galleries, rivers, and city parks. Their early influences included butoh pioneers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno and the German Expressionist Manja Chmiel. But their own oeuvre seems less contrived art than a sensuous phenomenon arising from—and securely rooted in—the awe-inspiring processes of the natural world.

 

“Koma and I want to present archaic landscapes,” Eiko has written. “We want audiences to see a pristine landscape eons older than the one we all occupy, and in which we humans can rediscover our essential selves.”

 

Humans can identify, she believes, “the place they have in common with other people and other beings.”

 

As part of the Walker's stated initiative to “expand the rules of engagement with artists and audiences,” the couple will inhabit Naked's room throughout the museum's open hours during this entire month. Unlike The Artist is Present—a comparable endurance set-up, this past spring, by performance artist Marina Abramovic at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—the dancers will not interact directly with viewers. However, visitors may drop by at any time, stay as long as they please and return for more as the work evolves.

 

Eiko & Koma made their U.S. debut in 1976 at Japan Society with a work called White Dance, set to Bach and medieval music. In 1981, they reprised that piece at the Walker and have maintained a relationship with the museum ever since.

 

“The Walker is more like a temple than a department store type of museum,” says Eiko, pleased by the company she and Koma will be keeping. “We're situated among the collection, parallel to works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, an amazing array of contemporary visual art.”

 

The Walker's autumn season has also included screenings of Eiko & Koma dances created for camera (1983–1999) as well as presentations of Raven (2010), which has been performed at Wesleyan University, Danspace Project, and the American Dance Festival as the centerpiece of the Retrospective Project. Last month, an evening talk facilitated by Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither and a workshop in “Delicious Movement” were held in conjunction with Naked's installation. The Walker’s retrospective catalog of Eiko & Koma's work, edited by Joan Rothfuss, will be published in Spring 2011. Eiko & Koma will tour the Retrospective Project to Miami, Sarasota, L.A., Chicago, and Milwaukee and the Dublin International Dance Festival throughout 2011.

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