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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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