I saw Eiko & Koma perform many years ago in Studio 6A in the Hennepin Center for the Arts. I don’t recall the title of the piece but I remember water all over the stage and the sound of dampness lapping against marley. Their intensely slow and slothlike movement quality was like nothing I’d ever experienced. The Minnesota Dance Alliance at the time had been working with corporate sponsors on audience development so there were some folks from American Express in the crowd that night. I’d imagine this was like nothing they’d ever seen, either. The post-show Q & A began with silence because we didn’t have words to talk about this; we were all dumbfounded by the intimacy and sorrow of the piece. Finally, one of the men from AmEx who spoke with a southern drawl raised his hand and asked good-naturedly “How do y’all stay so darn thin?” I felt mortified; I cringed at his question because of its apparent lack of depth and clumsiness but now, some seventeen years later, I realize this was his way into the work and now think of his question as somehow charming. I’m still finding my own ways into work, often clumsily.
With that said, I arrived late and didn’t have a chance to read the program before it started. I had some inkling of what it would be like from seeing them before.
The musician started playing with mallets that muted the sound in an odd way that I couldn’t quite identify. I instantly tried to define what that was and found myself distracted by the mallets, held sort of sideways in his hands, as if they were eyes looking around the theater out at the audience. The whole instrument became a creature and the musician receded. I decided that the sound had a swallowed quality that was resonating along the sides of my upper teeth. It wasn’t an entirely comfortable sensation and left me unsettled.
I spent the next several minutes trying to breathe and settle into the slowness of Eiko & Koma hanging upside down against a metal wall. The wall looked fixed and solid and reminded me of the walls of the McGuire theater and how surprised I was to discover that they were not soft felt but instead hard metal. I wondered how they could stand the cold against their bare skin. I was struck by Eiko’s inverted torso and how it slowly morphed into a large upside-down face, the crease in her belly resembling an open mouth. Again, her torso became a creature that was exploring the audience, challenging our gaze, much like the instrument had a few minutes earlier. It wasn’t until Koma’s feet slid down the wall a bit more rapidly than before that I realized the wall was not solid, but a fluid chain metal suspended fence that was miked and was creating a live soundscore. This was revelatory to me.
Koma glides as he walks like noone I’ve ever seen. He shifts his weight almost imperceptibly in his shuffle and somehow suddenly transports across the space without me noticing, almost as if he melted his way there. Yet he also moves solidly, as if he’s made of dense clay that sculpts its way into space. Conversely, Eiko can suspend a gesture in a way that makes time stop but also twitches and jerks like one of those spiders you don’t know is a jumper until you reach for it. Her legs at the beginning when she was hanging upside down reminded me of chicken bones abandoned on a paper plate at a picnic, all hollow and angular. She masterfully and readily accesses this almost cartoonish quality of movement and when she holds her mouth open and dares you to look it is at once harrowing and mesmerizing.
Was the bag of rice (I thought it was flour) a bed? Deathbed? Dinner table? It looked like a giant crushed saltine cracker.
There was such a stark difference between the older duo and the very young performers (perhaps younger versions of Eiko & Koma?). I thought about how poverty and hunger are inherited and also of culture clashes between generations. The hues and textures of the younger performers’ skin tones and costume pieces were rich and saturated while Eiko & Koma were dressed in greyish rags and they’d muted and dusted their skin with powder or flour. I was startled by the young woman’s ability to manipulate her wrist joints; they almost appeared broken as she held them up in the air, giving her movements a jilting and haunted peculiarity. I thought about the gender roles in this piece and tried to translate that into music. I felt that both men’s roles and movements provided a round, soft thrumming undercurrent or drone for the movement score while the women’s performances brought forth chords and ornamentations. Both roles were integral and essential and complemented the other.
When they began eating the rice I thought of my grandmother and how she used to make me bowls of rice mixed with warm milk, cinnamon and nutmeg when I was little. Comfort food. They seamlessly transitioned from hungering for food into hungering for sex. Both felt primal and desperate and universally familiar. I also thought of prostitution and what we are willing to do for sustenance. There was a gorgeous moment where Eiko & Koma’s faces were buried in the rice. I swear I didn’t see them move, but the next time I blinked Koma’s mouth was buried in Eiko’s neck, with Eiko’s mouth on Koma’s forehead. Again, comfort food and intensely familiar. This was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the piece for me. Later, a ghostlike open-mouthed Eiko would settle upstage against the chain link fence with her arms detached from her shoulder joints floating above her head, her left breast pressed into the surface. Later her foot and wide-spreading toes would remind me of fiddlehead ferns, unfurling and reaching.
I wanted to know what lyrics the musician was singing and how it related to the movement and set. His voice was rich and sincere. I asked him after the show and he told me that the last section was improvised (which sounded the most mournful to me). At the end, the young duo painted black streaks on big pieces of canvas that were drawn up and suspended in front of the chain fence. The paintings were full of sharp geometry (like Eiko’s legs in the beginning) that resembled swooping birds or beaks. Or hunger pangs. The softer swirls at the bottom of the canvas looked more like seaweed. The sound of their paintbrushes swatting against the chain link fence echoed the raspy call of the waterbirds heard throughout the piece.
Now I’m off to read the program. And maybe eat something. Thanks for reading.