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Eiko and Koma share a lifetime of choreography

The couple, who have danced together for several decades, have an upcoming book and a tour stop at the REDCAT.

February 27, 2011|By Valerie Gladstone, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Dancers Eiko, crouched in front, and Koma are shown in a performance of "White Dance" in 2010.
Dancers Eiko, crouched in front, and Koma are shown in a performance of "White… (Anna Lee Campbel )

Reporting from New York

High above the city, with a clear view of the icy streets below, the illustrious choreographers and dancers Eiko and Koma began a recent morning in their midtown apartment deciding what photographs should go into a new book about their work, soon to be published by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

It complements their current tour's "Regeneration" program, which comes to Los Angeles this week. Since the early '70s, Eiko and Koma have created bold, almost still, theatrical works of elemental power. Dressed simply or naked, the married couple evoke a primitive world where primal emotions are conveyed wordlessly.

"At first, we didn't want to be involved in the book or the tour," Eiko says, delicately sipping tea. "We thought that it sounded as if we were finished," explains Koma, an energetic man with unruly, thick, black hair. "But then," she says, finishing his sentence, "we saw that it would be quite the opposite. We look into the world — human lives, nature, and different species — and discover both the beauty and unreasonableness of it all. We care very much about what we say and dance about. We want to preserve and renew those things."

The couple, who use only their first names, will perform "White Dance" (1976), "Night Tide" (1984) and "Raven" (2010), three milestones in their 40-year career, at REDCAT. The book and the tour give them an opportunity to share a lifetime of work, under the umbrella of "The Retrospective Project," with "Regeneration" devoted to their dances and the book and exhibitions to their essays and video, art and sound works.

If not for their friend and advisor Sam Miller, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, "The Retrospective Project" might never have gotten off the ground. A fan of theirs since the early '90s, when he directed the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Miller liked the idea of applying the museum-gallery concept of a retrospective to their 40-year career and became the project's producer. Explaining his enthusiasm for their artistry, he says, "I like how they manipulate space and time. I love having to commit myself to their experience and slow down and spend time in their time."

Neither success nor age diminishes their daring. While most choreographers and dancers older than 50 wouldn't dream of performing, let alone performing naked, Eiko, 58, and Koma, 61, exhibit fearlessness and good humor about the challenges. "Of course, our bodies are very different from 30 years ago," he says, "and some people might think we should cover ourselves. We can't do everything the same way we did then, of course. But it's interesting to us to see how we adapt and what results. In a way, we're celebrating how we have aged. Our vulnerability invites the audience's empathy." Pausing for a moment, she adds, "Every time we do a piece, we get to know more about it. The performance brings us new juice."

Eiko and Koma's living room looks empty enough to be a studio, with a barre against one wall and hanging above it an irregularly shaped mirror, framed by branches. A piano stands nearby and at the far end is a card table stacked with DVDs and CDs, some which belong to their two adult sons. But they confess to a lack of physical preparation for their performances. "We mostly use the barre for stretching or hanging laundry," she says. He laughs and says, "Eiko couldn't even ride a bicycle when I met her. Physical education was her worst grade." She interrupts, "All we do is try not to have any accidents."

They don't choreograph together either, each one creating his or her solos alone. Standing up to demonstrate, Eiko illustrates with her hands, "I take just so much space to work and Koma takes just so much. We don't overlap and or even know what the other one will do. When we end up together touching on stage, it's only by chance. That's not choreographed."

Simplicity is key for them. They create settings resembling primeval or post-apocalyptic landscapes with which they appear to merge physically, sometimes including branches, dirt, straw and leaves as part of their sets. Their scores might be sounds of nature or drums and their costumes share the fluidity of the music, or they might perform in silence. Sometimes they wear robes, other times pieces of cloth patched together or nothing at all. From the beginning, they have given their works straightforward titles such as "Grain," "Thirst" or "Tree." Because the meanings are intentionally subtle, the titles serve only as indicators or as Eiko explains, "a way for us and the audience to stay focused. For instance, 'Raven.' It represents the black color and the scavenger nature of crows and all of us."

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