Eiko & Koma: The Unnatural Side of Communing with Nature

July 31, 2011

They are eerily, beautifully, part of some timeless dreamscape. The water is their natural environment. Eiko’s face floats, partially submerged, like a bright moon gliding across a dark sky. She is a doomed Ophelia who is rescued by Koma. The driftwood that magically sails toward them is their survival raft, but it also ensnares them in some kind of trap.

These images come to mind while watching Eiko & Koma in Water, the version of River that they have made for Lincoln Center Out of Doors. There is no exact beginning or ending of this 70-minute work. Kathy Kaufmann’s light finds Eiko first, Koma later. In the dimness, you can slowly discern that there’s a direction to their drifting—toward each other. When they finally touch, he seems to lift her out of the water, perhaps to protect her. Native American drummer Robert Mirabal, also immersed in the water of this shallow pool in Lincoln Center Plaza, is circling his arms on the surface of the water to send a bunch of branches out toward them.

At one point, I look away, and when I look back Koma has disappeared. Is he behind Eiko? Is he under the water? (The water in the Milstein Pool is only knee deep.) At another point he is ferrying a container of lit candles toward her, and then he’s trawling it to the far side of the pool. It’s so dark that it looks like the candles are traveling on their own, past the huge Henry Moore sculptures. Have we lost Koma again—or is it my eyes?

Their performances are so much about nature. And yet there is nothing carefree or even natural about the preparation.

Last Thursday, a few hours before the performance, I moderated a talk and film showing with Eiko and Koma at the Library of Performing Arts. In describing their lives as artists, they both tried to deflate any romantic notions of their affinity for nature. In visiting their retrospective exhibit, “Residue,” now at the NY Library of Performing Arts, you can see some evidence of the meticulous work that goes into each of these purely “natural” performances. For instance, that bunch of branches they cling to in River (and now Water), looks haphazard but has actually been carefully constructed. I brought that up at the talk, and Eiko responded, “Yes, nothing is natural. What we do is not natural.” The films they showed gave a glimpse of how arduous the preparation is, whether hauling branches around, scorching a canvas for a piece called Raven, or sewing themselves into their costumes.

Likewise, in the film The Retrospective Project, Koma says, “I’m expecting some mysterious moment which I couldn’t imagine, I couldn’t anticipate. As a performer, if we don’t look for that kind of moment, we have no reason to do this.” When I asked him about this at the talk, he explained that he is a professional who takes into account audience expectation.

To the naked eye, those moments look inevitable—as though some kind of fury or mischief wells up inside him and has to explode. Those moments make us feel something, but they do not give us anything to know. We ride with the uncertainty of their motivation and our own perception. (Are they moving or still? Where is the light coming from? Is he saving her or drowning her?)

I think their idea of Delicious Movement, the name they give their workshops, can be applied to the state of watching them: Delicious Uncertainty. You don’t really know anything for sure, but your mind stays very active watching their work. You can make up your own stories about who, when, and where.

Eiko said at the talk how much she admires the cave drawings of 38,000 years ago that are the subject of Herzog’s 3D movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Koma says they try to be denizens of a time long before us and long after. Maybe that’s why they are so mesmerizing to watch: There’s a timelessness that allows all circumstantial things to fall away.

Last Thursday I felt as immersed in the experience as Eiko & Koma were in the water. I felt grateful that they exist, that their performances give me so much. With their white faces and kimonos, they were Japanese paintings come alive. (So many of those ancient paintings have water in them—tsunamis even.) They have a special, ancient kind of charisma that is enhanced by their elusiveness. But they are also two people dealing with ordinary problems. Eiko has actually been contaminated by the water—getting fever and shakes—in a previous outing.

Eiko & Koma are now celebrating 40 years of working together with a three-year retrospective (see “The Art of Taking It Slow”). It was the brainstorm of Sam Miller that set the retrospective in motion. If you go see their installation “Residue,” you’ll get a glimpse of how powerful and mysterious their work has been for 40 years. You can have the Eiko & Koma experience pretty much in the privacy of your own thoughts. The exhibit is strange, informative, eerie, even a little bit creepy—and perfect for people who don’t have the patience to sit through one of their performances. But I found it a bit shocking to be so close to their work—there are videos, fabrics, a film, a teahouse, piles of salt and sand—without them being there. It’s almost as if they are preparing for their own death—their own version of Merce’s “legacy tour.”

Koma mentioned his wish for a permanent museum of their work. I think that the website they’ve been developing is the next best thing. It’s got their films, their book (Time Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty), photos, articles and more. I plan to visit it whenever I feel the urge.

For sheer originality, there is no one like Eiko & Koma. They go their own way. They play with our perceptions. They dangle archetypal images in front of us and leave us to our own devices.



Photo by Kevin Yatarola, Courtesy Lincoln Center Out of Doors.