Eiko & Koma

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, March 13-16

By Carol Burbank

With the steady sound of the surf at low tide, the curtain of the new theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art draws back to reveal a black stage lit only by the almost phosphorescent presence of a dancer curled in stillness. As Jeff Fontaine’s subtle, painterly lights gradually brighten, the dancer begins to uncoil with the slow, painful grace that marks Eiko & Koma’s eloquent performance throughout.

The four dances of “Memory,” which opened the Spring Festival of Dance, are older works, some of the starkest in Eiko & Koma’s repertoire. The two dancers, trained in avant-garde Japanese forms by the butoh master Kazuo Ohno and in German modern dance by Mary Wigman student Manja Chmiel, are known for their hybrid of these forms, for their gruelingly slow evocations of human suffering and dislocation. “Memory” was a performance remarkable for its aching mourning, for its emotional and visual power.

The opening piece, Memory, represents a painstaking struggle against gravity. As if discovering the power of motion for the first time, Eiko & Koma (woman and man respectively) curl and uncurl, reaching for each other in blind, disconnected need. The chain-link fence that separates them is a glistening, textured barrier; a slowly intensifying light illuminates Koma’s undulating back before the dancers turn in incremental stages toward each other and pin themselves against the almost invisible wall that divides them. Then they pull themselves in minute gestures across the fence’s wire, using their toes and fingers to suspend their twisted bodies above the ground. Moving toward the center of the fence, their heads and shoulders impossibly angled, they’re seemingly unaware of each other. Every now and then they pause, their faces reflecting some unnameable suffering, holding their awkward, progressively more precarious positions as if they were too exhausted to do anything but breathe. Then they continue their creeping progress sideways, each gesture so gradual it’s reflected primarily in the shifting textures and colors of their naked bodies.

The vulnerability and gentle confrontation of Eiko & Koma’s nakedness is striking. American dance culture, through costume and gestures, often represents dancers as powerful and attractive, with “perfect” bodies. Scars, muscle groups, and genitals are smoothed over, masked. But Eiko & Koma fully reveal their bodies, giving them biological and theatrical textures that heighten the power of the movement. They perform with their organs, their bones, and the source of each motion is made clear by the prolonged tension of a muscle or the uncomfortable-looking compression of a face into the floor.

Initially Eiko & Koma’s nakedness seemed an intimate introduction not only to their physical bodies but to their souls. As the dances progressed, however, I began to understand their bodies as canvases, and their muscles and scars and genitals as the paint that with each small shift creates a new abstraction. These perceptions, combined with the constant, grieving tension of the dances, made the performance feel hallucinogenic, dangerous, at times overwhelming.

Their bodies become landscapes, moving and organic forms that suggest private yet primal imagery. In Rust the two move into a thwarted embrace, a crawling, eerie kiss without satisfaction or connection, before they drape themselves over each other like sacks. In Night Tide they hold their torsos up so that their tensed buttocks, growing blue in the stark light, seem the head of a sculpture. Heads canted toward the audience, balancing themselves through minute twists of their arms and legs, they look like human organs and limbs–penises, thighs, shoulders, disembodied parts. Out of this fantastical suspension of order, in the middle of a long turn against the light, one of them will look at the audience. Eiko’s shattered blankness, clown grief without the mask of comedy, and Koma’s stunned, coldly befuddled searching interrupt the abstraction, and the emotional force of the dances breaks the illusion of transcendence.

The final piece, Elegy, demonstrates the environmental side of Eiko & Koma’s work. As the lights lift slowly, their ghostlike phosphorescent bodies create a water painting. Each dancer stands in a shallow pool, and each of their motions is reflected in ripples and shadows on the ceiling of the auditorium. They struggle to reach each other, struggle to remain standing, fall, slip in the water with a surreal flopping motion, their hair glistening with drops of water.

The ripples on the ceiling reflect their progress from the back to the front of the stage, where they’re as trapped in the shallow water as they were at the beginning. After a frozen moment, reaching out across the dark blankness of the stage, they turn inward again, start moving in aching, defeated inches as gravity pulls them downward, drowning. Their shadows are pinned like black ash in the center of the reflections on the ceiling.

This intense performance is so full of suffering; it’s as if the world had ended and there were nothing left to connect body with body, gesture with meaning, gravity with rest. Eiko & Koma express postnuclear disconnection by contorting themselves with grace into physical phantoms, virtuosic cripples who struggle to move. The truths they express, bleak and whole, are truths of the body, unspoken, released only in the vulnerability of naked motion. It’s an art of yearning without release that left me breathless but fulfilled.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Memory performance photo by Beatriz Schiller.