A fact not widely understood about dance: for it to communicate to the viewer, its silent language must be informed by clarity of thought in the maker(s). The body is brain-powered, just as the brain is body-fueled. Communicating anything worth taking in through speechless dance requires a certain kind of honed, holistic consciousness in the maker. Ideas alone are not enough; sensation alone is not enough; kineticism for its own sake is inadequate. The great dance maker must put them all together, with urgency. The viewer should not be able to turn away. And when the dance has ended and the dancer gone, the place where she was should burn the retina with absence.
There are many ways this can happen, and different ways will reach different souls. My soul has pretty catholic tastes in all the arts, but some creators arrow directly to its core. Eiko and Koma have been chief among these since 1984, with their primal subjects, slow delicious movement, sinewy vulnerability, haunting visuals and eloquent silence. I saw them repeatedly, but never heard their voices until they accepted the 2004 Scripps Award at the American Dance Festival.
Now Eiko and Koma are each working on solo projects. Koma will be here during the regular ADF season (July 12-14); Eiko is here now. She will perform for FREE May 14-15, but last night, as part of the Durham County Public Library humanities series, she spoke. Hearing the clarity and certainty of her thoughts made the clarity of her dancing less mysterious.
Eiko Otake performing her ever-varying A BODY IN PLACES in Hong Kong, 2015. Photo: CPAK Studio, courtesy ADF.
Her purpose was to discuss a book she has translated from the Japanese, by Nagasaki atomic bomb victim and survivor, Kyoko Hayashi. In English, its title is From Trinity to Trinity; in it, Hayashi writes about herself, her life as a lifetime extension of August 9, 1945, and her visit to the “Trinity” site in New Mexico, where the first three atomic bombs were made. One was tested there; one was dropped on Hiroshima; the third went to Nagasaki. Eiko had translated the text as part of her self-designed Master’s program at NYU in 2010; it is published by Station Hill Press. In addition to her work as a performer, Eiko also teaches college courses in atomic bomb literature, in which she uses “movement and art to promote education.”
She did discuss the book, but she also verbalized some of what drives her as an artist, elaborating on several points she made last year when she spoke at the Pleiades Gallery prior to her performances of A Body in Places at the Cordoba Center for the Arts.
Thanks to a grant, she and Koma had had a studio on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the Twin Trade Towers for a time in 2000, and she got to know many people in the building. On 9/11/2001, she was in her apartment, and, she said last night, “I saw the towers in flames. I saw the towers fall. As the tower fell, I actually saw my assistants’ faces. I got confused. I thought, I must call their parents. That was my defining moment.”
9/11 was not only cataclysmic, but catalytic for Eiko. She plunged into the study of The Bomb, driven by the question of “how do people survive violence caused by humans?”
Her longstanding engrossment with the question of “how the time and the place and the body relate” expanded to include questions like “how many people who have seen me [perform] have died already?” and “how much of the gaze has been deposited in my body?”
“I decided,” she said, “to think about how artists can sustain mourning.”
It’s my belief that American culture in general denies the importance of mourning, cutting it short, always too ready for “closure,” ready to “move on.” We are lesser humans if we try to pretend away the sorrow and loss and devastation, the rage and the longing, instead of breathing through it all along with the joy.
One stop on her travels around the world with A Body in Places was Valparaiso, Chile, where Eiko was accompanied by her friend, the poet C.D. Wright, as well as photographer William Johnston (who also shot the work in Fukushima). Johnston clicked a series of frames of Wright watching Eiko, the final frame showing her gazing fixedly at the place Eiko had been, but was no longer. Wright flew back to New York. The next day, she died, leaving to Eiko the kind of resonant emptiness that Eiko evokes when her body leaves a place: an imprint of nothingness, before it is blurred by time.
Naturally, we must mourn. Mourning generates hunger, ravening hunger, for more life.
And in other news, President Obama plans to visit Hiroshima.