Eiko and Koma

 

Japan's Eiko and Koma have created timeless works by focusing on the here and now.

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By Jordan Levin

Dance duo Eiko and Koma have been able to keep going for as long as they have — 40 years of intense creating and performing — in part because they don’t look too far ahead.

“I can’t tell, and I have never been able to tell, how long we will go on,” says Eiko, 58, the female half of the acclaimed Japanese performance duo that brings its 40{+t}{+h} anniversary Retrospective Project to Miami Beach’s Colony Theater this Friday and Saturday.

“We are dance artists. It is not up to us to decide. Things are a little at the mercy of the economy and the larger landscape. We have to count on our now and our near future. Because in performance there is so much work to do that is about now. I would never have imagined when we were young that we would stay performing [this long].”

Focusing on the “right now” throughout a lengthy career is only one of the paradoxes of Eiko and Koma’s work. Although the couple’s artistic partnership is entirely self-contained — they create and perform exclusively together, never teaching their pieces to others — they have been influential, and revered, in the world of dance and performance. Their pieces, in which the artists, often partially or completely nude, move through mysterious landscapes that seem post-apocalyptic or primeval, have an atmosphere that seems simultaneously timeless and ancient. Yet Eiko and Koma are regarded as radically and perennially modern.

And while in performance she and Koma move with what can seem to be time-stopping slowness, Eiko, speaking from the couple’s New York apartment, talks with rapid efficiency about their motivations.

“When we were young we did one thing, then another, to see what we can do,” Eiko says. “Then you realize that … as an artist it is not that you have to say one hundred fifty-eight new things. What matters to you most is more important.”

What is important to them is nothing less than their, and humanity’s, place in the cosmos.

“Our relationship to the larger time, the larger landscape,” Eiko says. “Something that happens, and I am really a part of it — this performance is part of a larger time, this whole continuation of time and space.”

Eiko and Koma’s work feels “ancient and modern at the same time … like you’re watching an organic part of life unfold before your eyes,” says Philip Bither, senior curator for performing arts at the celebrated Walker Museum in Minneapolis. Eiko and Koma recently spent two months there in a “living” installation in which they performed, naked, six hours a day inside a cave-like space they created, as the audience came and went.

“People were sitting five feet away, so they could see every movement, even our breathing,” Eiko says. “We were very aware of them.”

Eiko and Koma, who is 62, began as political-science students and activists in Japan in the 1960s, part of a movement protesting the war in Vietnam, the destruction of nature and the increasingly corporate, commercial character of their society.

They met in 1971 while studying with Tatsumi Hijikata, and later with Kazuo Ohno, the definitive artists of Butoh, an intense, often torturous and grotesque form of dance that developed partly in response to the horror of the atomic bombing of Japan. Almost immediately, Eiko and Koma began to create work, studying and performing in Europe, then moving to New York in 1976.

“We never became disciples,” Eiko says. “What made us different is we work just the two of us.”

Their partnership is personal (they have two adult sons), as well as artistic, although, Eiko says drily, “We don’t necessarily go to a movie together. … It’s a little bit unusual. But this is the only life we have lived, so it’s hard for me to tell. Look at the farmer and his wife, or a man and his wife who have a store or a Laundromat, that’s not so different. They’re together morning to night, and they discuss what to do next, what was wrong, what was good.”

From their first piece in the United States, White Dance, in 1976 — which they will perform in Miami — they exhibited the qualities that have compelled audiences, and the art world; a timeless, elemental form of movement theater that seems to speak to an inchoate but profound sense of humanity and nature. An Eiko and Koma piece can be as simple as their crossing a stage to meet, through a set they create using natural objects — dirt, leaves, branches, sand — that conjures up a miniature world. Moving with plantlike slowness, they seem alien and also heartbreakingly human.

An admirer since the mid-’80s, Bither says devotion and rigor have kept the couple’s work relevant.
“There’s a do-it-yourself aesthetic that younger artists … have had to adopt, of how, with limited means and organic, everyday material, you make something important and powerful,” Bither says. “Young artists … look at Eiko and Koma as survivors who have been true to their ideals, and that has been enhanced with their age.”

The couple’s Miami visit, presented by Tigertail Productions, also includes one of Eiko and Koma’s “Delicious Movement” workshops and a video installation. They will perform a revival of White Dance; Night Tide, from 1984, the first work in which they appeared nude; and Raven, created for the Retrospective Project.

The project continues through 2012. Eiko says she is not certain what, or how much more, will come next.
“I don’t know how long we can do this or how long we want to do this,” she says.

As long as it’s interesting?

“Maybe,” she says. “Maybe not. But we’ll see. It’s better to have something unknown.”

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