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Flash Review 3, 6-25: Offering a Slow Medicine
Eiko & Koma on the Pleasures of Eating Dirt for Public Service

By Alissa Cardone
Copyright 2003 Alissa Cardone

NEW YORK -- During Obon, a very important annual ritual for the dead practiced in Japan, lighted lanterns are hung outside houses to guide the spirits of ancestors back home to visit the living. It is a ritual of many shadows, family reunion and much joy, filled with flickering candles, smoke trails, dancing and sixth sense, and like Eiko & Koma's latest environmental installation performance "Offering," it is a ritual for the living.

A dance conceived to urge regeneration after loss and, according to its authors, "to serve a communal need for a ritual of mourning," I saw "Offering" Friday, during its free four-day run in the cemetery of St. Mark's Church, where it was presented by Danspace Project. Staged last summer in six NYC parks, this time it was staged in the middle of St. Mark's yard, atop gravestones, a few mounds of fresh soil and an awkward dirt-stuffed oversized altar sculpture that spun. Between two wise billowing trees, after a misty rain, dressed in fire colored sheaths, with Eiko dragging an arrow, the duo moved like fevered sleepwalkers in and out of the earth, towards and away from each other in magnetic indecision -- do we sink or do we rise?

It seemed to me that Eiko and Koma did not dance about death so much as remind that death is just another part of life. In the hour-long dance there were ranges of antagonism and tenderness, advance and retreat, consistent with basic human relationships. But in our society, where we do not deal openly with death and are not equipped to talk about it in any sustained way, Eiko & Koma are giving us a chance to meditate on it, to sense and share -- if we want to. Remember the weeks following September 11, when vibrant impromptu shrines and altars that bloomed throughout lower Manhattan were too quickly ordered to the dumpsters? There is much we could gain by not placing a time constraint on periods of mourning. In this sense, "Offering" acts as a public service, and for that reason has a big political implication as a dance. I will be curious to see how this work translates to a proscenium setting, where it is scheduled to be presented later this year and where the communal closeness of Eiko & Koma's environmental installations cannot be as easily felt.

In addition to this free performance series, Eiko & Koma also offered a four-day workshop open to all movers, no dance experience necessary, in which participants could dance outside within the set of "Offering." I took this workshop and experienced their teaching of what they call "Sleeping/Moving," a nonchalant dance that invites a chance to dream, where Eiko says "the door is always open." The work was presented as being unproductive and encouraged to be "harmless" and "decent" -- and I mean unproductive in a positive sense. To do very little is in fact to do so much, being "harmless" much harder than you think. Take their workshop and you'll see what I mean. Koma told us about how Eiko really learned to dance when she had to perform with a broken ankle, and also that she studied political science at university in Japan.

Eiko & Koma are anything but dramatic and I appreciate how mundane their dance is. They are rooted movers, like plants, skilled at slowness so much that I cannot detect where their movements start or end. They are like perpetual dormant volcanos that will never burst but always have a big secret churning within. When Eiko lifts fistfuls of dirt from the Earth to her heart to her slightly open mouth, seemingly eating the soil, we have to remember the soil we will eventually go into is the soil we are. As Butoh performance artist Min Tanaka once said to me in a workshop, "You should feel no distance between you and the tree." As Eiko appears to ingest the dirt, we remember our fate in a delicious living moment while cringing a bit at the thought of a swallow.

But this dance was for me also about the labor of life and its cycles, and about the passing of time. I felt this in Eiko & Koma's sustained glacial glide and in tiny movements that built a great tension whenever their bodies pushed into and away from one another or rotated the crude altar on its axis. Koma seemed a kind of agent of death, pushing Eiko into the altar almost antagonistically, then helping her atop it before poking arrows into the dirt around her body. My main criticism is that I wish they had not put any other music to the piece besides the (free) live soundtrack of the environment in which the sound of falling dirt played an important part. I found the sentimental pre-recorded music pretty, but in this context distracting. I would have preferred only the chance noise of a Lower East Side night, simultaneously unsettling and entrancing. Horns honk, someone yells "Get the hell outta the way," Koma lights a fistful of candles.

What I appreciate most about this movement form, call their style a take on Butoh (they are after all pupils of Butoh master Kazuo Ohno), or just call it Eiko & Koma's dance, is how its slowness calls attention to so much outside of the dance. At times I dozed, not worrying about boredom, but being moved to look up, to notice the trees, the sky, the crowd (Deborah Jowitt scribbling on her program) of well over a hundred watching intently. It is good to know that dance too can sometimes be humble, not begging for you to always have to look at it, creating instead an openness for times when you really must look at it.

Alissa Cardone is a dancer, writer and inter-media performance maker. In Boston she co-founded the Outside Art Collective, taught improvisation, designed web pages (and some dances), made a dance film with film/video artist Alla Kovgan called "Surface," and wrote songs for the indie duo theMatters. From 1998 to 2001 she toured with Paula Josa-Jones/Performance Works. She also worked with Bennett Dance Company, Brenda Divelbliss and Sara Sweet Rabideux/hoi polloi before moving to New York in 2002. She just graduated from New York University in Performance Studies and is on her way to Japan to dance in Akira Kasai's latest project, "Nobody Eve."

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