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 Speaks

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.

2015 HONG KONG 3rd performance West Kowloon Cultural District Commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+_ Live Art, 2015 Photo_ CPAK Studio_DSC3460

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.

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.

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