Forty Years: Eiko & Koma’s Retrospective Exhibit

By Rachel Straus

Forty years is a long time to make dances with just one other person. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the avant-garde dance makers Eiko & Koma present “Residue,” an exhibit tracing their four-decade collaboration. From their beginnings in post-World War II Japan, to their first artistic success in Germany, to their decision in 1977 to become New Yorkers, Eiko & Koma have chosen a path less taken.

On view until October 30, their dance-based installation is illuminating and exhaustive, much like their live performances. In them their glacially slow movements are absorbed into ecological environments or naturalistic set designs, such as a mound of dirt, the trunk of a tree, or a flowing river.

Time in Eiko & Koma’s dance universe is not measured in minutes. But time needs to be mentioned in the context of this exhibit. To watch all nine of Eiko & Koma’s displayed films would require several days (or about 100 hours). But spending 20 minutes in their space can be transformative. The experience is similar to descending into a dark well. At its depth one finds a primordial universe, a world that prefigures the atomic bomb, the porn industry, and high-frequency stock trading. Eiko & Koma are drawn to big themes: birth, death, pain and perseverance. Their dances embrace the philosophy of permanent impermanence.

Peering into seven rectangular boxes at the exhibit’s entranceway is like becoming Alice in Alice in Wonderland. But instead of falling down a rabbit hole and shrinking, as Alice does, at the bottom of these boxes one finds miniature Eiko and Koma’s via recorded film footage. The dancers molt from one position into another. In one film they resemble tree creatures, in another they look like otters rolling in slow motion in the surf. In all they appear utterly vulnerable.

Eiko & Koma’s dances aren’t comforting to those seeking beautiful costumes and happy endings. That is why the installation in the center of the exhibit space proves so effective. It’s a mediation room. From a black reflecting pool of water looms a projected image of Eiko & Koma. Naked and in the fetal position, they look like twins in a womb. Around the reflecting pool are walls slathered with sand and bird feathers. They become vertical beaches, especially when the sound of wind and water emerges from the sound system.

Like Eiko & Koma’s dances, the ability to enjoy their exhibit depends on one’s perspective. Unlike most post-modern dancers, who traffic in irony, Eiko & Koma don’t have a sarcastic bone in their bodies. Their work pushes against the squall of modernity, particularly its speed. To walk through the exhibit space is to journey into Eiko & Koma’s dark imaginations. At the 40-year mark of their art making, they are not doing anything very different. Instead they’re delving deeper.

For more information about “Residue” go to:

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