What it was, was a Happening: Koma Out of the Box at ADF


Koma Otake dancing in his solo work, The Ghost Festival in the 21c Museum Hotel. ADF Out of the Box, 7/12/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


The American Dance Festival has teamed up with the 21c Museum Hotel (in the Hill Building/former CCB/Suntrust) to present an experimental artwork by Koma Otake, the male half of Eiko and Koma, who have performed regularly at the ADF since 1983. Eiko performed her own solo work earlier this year; at last Koma’s is revealed.

There is always a whopping dose of incongruity (though rarely dissonance) in the couple’s work together, and in Eiko’s solos–contrasts that pop you right out of easy thought ruts. But seeing Koma, his simple set limning the performance space, and his mixed media paintings in the handsome paneled ballroom of the bank turned sleek hotel was unusually high-contrast. If you’d never seen him before, the fact that he was fully clothed–and wearing shoes!–would not have seemed odd, but for aficionados, it was almost shocking.

The Ghost Festival, which will repeat July 13-14 at 8:30, is meant to begin in the hotel, then continue after an intermission out in the CCB Plaza (The Bull Plaza), in and around and under a small trailer that Koma has worked into an installation/performance space. On the 12th, an electrical storm nixed the outdoor activities. Koma improvised a second act, but begged everyone to return to watch the outdoor portion–weather permitting. (Approximately 9 p.m.) This interruption made it impossible to understand the scope of Koma’s undertaking last night, but the improvised second act was quite a Happening, with ADF students being pulled up from their floor seating to participate.

The Ghost Festival refers to a Japanese festival, occurring annually in August, in which people dance in slow circles for 24 hours, reaching out a beautifully open hand to live friends on one side and a curled hand toward the dead spirits on the other. The dead are remembered, and the individual feels his or her place in the flow of life.

This artistic ghost festival seems to evoke some particular spirits: Kazuo Ohno, a pioneer of Butoh, with whom Eiko and Koma studied before leaving Japan; and La Argentina (Antonia Mercé y Luque), a Buenos Aires-born Spanish dancer whose work had a great impact on Kazuo Ohno. It’s hard to say for sure, but there’s a sense of looking into the past…it is as if, gazing into the past, Koma sees Kazuo seeing La Argentina in his mind, and, as him remembering her, sketches out steps, gestures and turns that recall her to him. It was sort of like watching a magician pull colored silks out of an empty hat. The music for the first act is mostly Argentinian tango, and seeing Koma bring his style to it is an entirely unexpected treat.


Koma improvising in the ADF/21c Museum Hotel co-presentation of Koma’s The Ghost Festival. 7/12/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


Tickets here.



Koma Otake in The Ghost Festival, for which he created all components. ADF at 21c, 7/12/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


Eiko Solo, at ADF through July 12

Eiko Otake dancing the Cordoba Center for the Arts iteration of A BODY IN PLACES,  her new series of solo works. At ADF through July 12. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Eiko Otake dancing the Cordoba Center for the Arts iteration of A BODY IN PLACES, her new series of solo works. At ADF through July 12. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Eiko and Koma. Of all the riches laid so lavishly in our laps by the American Dance Festival since its first Durham season in 1978, the most precious to this viewer remains the work of the Japanese-born duo who have appeared here many times. It has been more than 30 years since I first saw them perform, in Reynolds Theater, and still-vivid memory-images from Grain and Elegy trigger the same sense of soul-shaking awe at fundamental truth revealed that overcame me in the theater that first night.

Now Eiko, after 40 years of collaboration with her husband, is here alone (Koma is working on his own solo project). Having herself been profoundly shaken by news of the cascading disasters in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011–earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactor meltdown–she went there. And so began A Body in Places.

It is a mutable work, actually site-specific. Here in Durham, she is dancing an iteration of it in one of the large, post-industrial spaces of the Cordoba Center for the Arts, behind the Golden Belt complex, in the heart of old Durham’s former manufacturing zone. Although these old mills have at last found new uses, they are still permeated by the feeling of something lost. The room at the Cordoba Center is stacked with things no longer useful–odd bits of factory equipment, old mainframe computer towers. Water driven in by the recent storms drips into sad puddles on the concrete floor. Between Eiko in her ghostly white body paint, with her silk-covered futon, her silk coverlet, her billowy length of red silk, and the concrete and metal room, the visual dissonance buzzes like the cicadas heard through the open door.

Eiko Otake was born in Japan in 1952. Her parents had married between the first atomic bombing in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the Japanese surrender on August 15, following the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki August 9. Hundreds of thousands of people died immediately or within the first few months after the bombings of acute radiation poisoning, and radiation sickness continued to claim lives and health for decades.

Eiko remembers, she noted at her recent talk at the Pleiades Gallery, living her childhood in “genuine fear of the radiation,” fear that was only increased by the American nuclear testing in the Micronesian Bikini Atoll (1946-58), which rendered it completely uninhabitable. And yet, she said, ” in a way, we were supposed to forget about it.”  The nation of Japan has built, post-war, 56 nuclear power plants.

The artist has lived in New York for decades, but when Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was over-washed, leading to nuclear core meltdown, widespread radiation and the sudden evacuation of the area, Eiko felt compelled to go there. She went “not knowing why, but knowing I had to go–me as a body worker, me who has been haunted by the bomb, me who has been teaching about the bomb since 9/11.” It was, she said, “as big a shock as 9/11 in New York.”

On her first trip, she was “defeated,” she said, but she returned with photographer William Johnston, her costumes and a red fabric stitched together of bits of precious old silks. For her, red is a female color, an under-the-earth color, full of energy. “It gives me energy, but in such a way I must be careful.”

“When something this big happens, you as an artist have to respond. I actually climbed up the fence to get in there. It is a forbidden zone.” The shocking photographs Otake and and Johnston made in Fukushima, painful records of her passionate mourning in a wrecked and empty landscape, are on view in Durham currently (Reynolds lobby through July 23; DAC and Pleiades until July 25).

Perhaps the most emblematic of the disaster in this group of photographs are the ones of empty train stations. The people left for work and never returned, their abandoned bicycles now carrying only toxic radiation. (When asked if she had touched them, she said “yes. It was my choice to use my body as a wash cloth.” Then she added, wryly, “this is a very good project for an old person.”) For her first American performance of A Body in Places, Eiko chose the magnificent 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where she moved in her slow silent way as the hordes of travelers swirled around her.

“If I dig dig dig through this Western grandeur station,” she said, “through this hole you get to this small abandoned no people station. You can come through my body to Fukushima.” From Durham, you depart from a disused factory along a disused rail line. Last trip, July 12, 7 p.m.

Eiko, July 6, 2015. The mystically powerful dancer, who has always worked with her husband Koma, has made many appearances at ADF since the 1980s. This is her first solo venture. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Eiko, July 6, 2015. The mystically powerful dancer, who has always worked with her husband Koma, has made many appearances at ADF since the 1980s. This is her first solo venture. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Eiko: Rare Opportunity to See (and Hear) the Great Dance Artist

TODAY, July 2, at 5:00, Eiko Otake, the female half of the duo Eiko and Koma, frequent visitors to the American Dance Festival, will be present at a special salon at Pleiades Gallery in downtown Durham. The salon and reception are free to the public.

Eiko in Fukushima 24 July 2014. Photograph by William Johnston.

Eiko in Fukushima 24 July 2014. Photograph by William Johnston.

Eiko is in the midst of a series of solo movement works, A Body in Places, in which her body and spirit interact with the spirits of various physical places. As part of that work, she and photographer William Johnston travelled to Fukushima, Japan in 2014. More than three years after the earthquake, tsunami and consequent release of radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, what they found released waves of grief and mourning for the loss, damage and emptiness of Fukushima Prefecture–emotions that Eiko danced and Johnston documented in A Body in Fukushima.

Johnston’s photographs, bleak and searing, are on display in three Durham locations: the lobby of Reynolds Theater (through July 23); the Durham Arts Council, and the Pleiades Gallery (both through July 25). Eiko will speak about the work this evening during the 5:00-7:30 p.m. salon/reception. Having heard her speak some years ago when she and Koma received the Scripps Award at ADF, I can assure you that she will be interesting.

Eiko continues her solo project next week in Durham. The ADF will present her in an unprecedented run of performances–in the Cordoba Center for the Arts, a former industrial building beside Golden Belt. At 7 p.m., Tuesday, July-Sunday July 12, Eiko will dance in her mesmerizing “delicious movement” style for very small audiences in the old factory spaces. Having seen her and Koma at every opportunity since the 1980s, I can also assure you, that for those who appreciate slow, intense and emotionally unsettling dance art, seeing Eiko dance up close and personal will be a very special experience.

You can purchase performance tickets here, and read about her recent appearance in New York here.

Eiko in Fukushima 22 July 2014. Photograph by William Johnston.

Eiko in Fukushima 22 July 2014. Photograph by William Johnston.

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