Artists Emerge in Wilder Bowl for Free Performance
Dancers With Japanese Roots and Worldly Souls
by Julie Johnson

Anyone who walked through Wilder Bowl between 5 and 7 p.m. last Monday, November 4, had to have seen Emerging Arts guest artists Eiko and Koma’s portable theater. The glowing reds and whites may have first attracted passers by, but the white-painted essence of the bodies in slow motion are what held peoples’ attention.
The performance began near sundown, and as the light disappeared, the lights in the van appeared to grow brighter and warmer, but in contrast the temperature was dropping fast. Their movements were almost painfully slow and rugged, though with a primal grace. “On the one hand you can say we are very slow, but you can see how time has changed from 5:30 to 6:30,” Eiko said. As the performers’ breaths began to show, it became clear that though the audience standing in Wilder Bowl might be cold, the slow movements of the performers were hardly enough to fend off the cold.
“Eiko and Koma’s performance was beautiful due to the presence it quietly unleashed on Wilder Bowl,” senior Raphael Martin said, “It was so nice to be able to observe a version of a Japanese art form in the silence and cold of an Oberlin November night. The white-painted bodies slowly moving in their cocoon-like canopy was spectral.”

The van the two transformed into a portable theater had double doors on all four sides, creating the sense that the van was a snow globe. The interior was layered with strips of cloths in either icy blue-greens or deep reds-oranges that created the effect of hills and valleys along the floor and hung from the ceiling. Eiko, clothed in blue-green rags, hovered in the warm layers of cloths, while Koma in reds hovered in the blue-green valleys. The set broke the elements in two — the hot fire, magma and bloods juxtaposed next to the cool ice and skin tones.

Eiko and Koma left Japan in 1972, and showed up in New York from Germany in 1976 with no recognition and little funds. They had to support themselves by driving taxis and waitressing while taking any opportunity they could to perform. “We performed anywhere and everywhere…at lunch breaks, in libraries, on street corners,” Eiko said. Word moves fast, and Eiko said they could support themselves solely with their art by the early 1980s, performing at venues like the BAM and Old Joyce.
While recognition has its benefits, the two couldn’t drop their vagabond artist roots. “We kind of missed being funky,” Eiko said. In addition to booked theater events, they make an effort to perform free public performances as well. When performing in public, “There is no responsibility to the audience because perspective and timing is too variable,” Eiko said. She described public performances as more of an outreach for the sake of an event, rather than art for art’s sake.

Eiko’s and Koma’s form of dance has striking correlations to Japanese styles of theater. The measured movements and mask-like white painted faces and the carefully crafted aesthetic atmosphere of the piece reached back to Noh Theater’s emphasis on refined artistry. Their performance seemed to embody Butoh theater’s concept of the “empty body,” the practice of giving the body to be moved, rather than a directed sense of self-expression. Eiko and Koma’s performance was driven by their bodies, by the natural flow created by the undulations in the stage and repetition of the song for most of the two hours.

However, Eiko and Koma have consciously distanced themselves from the genre of the Butoh school of dance. “We studied under a Butoh master for a few months, but we were bad students. “We don’t call ourselves Butoh because we didn’t complete study under the master,” Eiko said. There is a strong tradition in Japanese culture between master and student, and it can be difficult to be part of a genre without connection to the hierarchical structure.
Eiko and Koma were invited to Oberlin as part of the Emerging Arts program. It seems Eiko and Koma have done well without connecting themselves with any specific genre, and have surely etched out their own niche.

November 9
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