REVIEW: A Body in Places by Eiko Otake at Dance Place
by Mariana C. Barros
I have always thought that there is a kind of beauty that lies in the possibilities of an empty dance studio or an empty theater. A beauty that lies in the marriage of wonder and creation, like the calm before a storm. It is an eerie silence that carries the weight of moments passed and a promised chaos to come. I cannot see it, I cannot taste or smell it, but as I stand silent and admire it, I can feel it.
As I stood on the sidewalk of 8th Street NE, just a few blocks from Dance Place, staring down the Hamlin Street alley next to the Hope Community Charter School, I could feel that familiar energy around me. That promise of wonder and creation usually reserved for designated spaces was present in the real world. It was present in the dust and the concrete; accented by the whistle of the wind; affirmed by the sound of the train whirling by just a few blocks away. It silently lingered as we stared at a still figure leaning against a brick wall. This small, delicate figure, Eiko Otake, dressed in a beautiful cream kimono with painted leaves was almost perfectly camouflaged into her environment. Leaning against the wall facing away from the spectators gathered around, she was perfectly still except for the ruffling of her kimono and hair in the wind. She looked like a living painting.
Otake, primarily known as one-half of Eiko and Koma, is a movement performing artist that hails from Japan. Eiko and Koma are a choreographing and dancing duo known for their slow, fragmented aesthetic that certainly does not resemble natural human movement. Yet, their work always seems to elicit raw human emotion from their audiences. Their work can be accurately classified as more of movement installation pieces, rather than what you would normally think of in traditional disciplines of dance. In this solo venture, Eiko continues this legacy.
As she slowly began to move, she pressed her forehead onto the wall. She seemed to bear the weight of the entire nation on her shoulders. While she explored the world around her at a glacier-like pace, she reminded me of a newborn making sense of the who and where she was. Slowly, she began to make her way across the alley to the fence on the other side. It was only then that we got a glimpse of her face. Eiko moved on to explore some metal dividers nearby, then eventually made her way to a clearing at the end of the street behind the Dew Drop Inn. We followed her lengthy exploration attentively for 47 minutes. I only realized that much time had gone by near the end of her performance when I looked down at my watch and was amazed at how quickly the time seemed to pass.
Throughout her journey, we seemed to witness Eiko undergo a transformation. In the beginning, her movement was weighted and timid. When she first peeled away from her starting point, there seemed to be an energy pulling her back to that familiar spot. Somehow, she was unable to get back to that place. Even as she audibly moaned and seemed to yearn to get back to that starting point, there seemed to be something stopping her from it. As she gained her strength and found her path down the road, she would sometimes fall to the ground. Nevertheless, there was resilience even in her defeats. She picked herself up and continued her journey.
Eiko used several props throughout her piece, beginning with a handful of branches that she used as an extension of her hand to make sense of the surfaces she explored. Many times, she used these items to make a direct connection with the audience by handing pieces to random spectators. The first of these lucky spectators was an older woman who seemed to be completely enthralled by Eiko. Watching this connection between artist and spectator felt intimate, almost as if I was intruding on their moment. Still, I could not look away. Later on, she used some vivid black feathers in the same way. Along with props, Eiko would also periodically shed layers of clothing. First, it was her original cream kimono, which was then followed by a memorable black kimono with what seemed to be fish painted onto its seams. Another notable piece was a purple shawl/blanket piece that she dragged around at times, then used to cover herself.
It was interesting being outdoors with her during all of this. Her style can be described as avant-garde, and I would venture to think that it could seem inaccessible to a general audience not familiar with the fine arts. However, as the performance progresses, our small group of audience members began to draw in a larger crowd. Bystanders walking by, some taking their dog for a walk, others riding their bike through the neighborhood, ended up stopping and following Eiko’s performance with us. Eventually, our group grew to three or four times the original size. While many of them may not have gone to an art gallery to seek out this type of work, when exposed to it they were simply captivated. I even saw several groups of people looking down from a balcony at a nearby restaurant rush down to catch up with our group. By placing herself and this journey in the real world, outside of art galleries or a theater, she made herself, and her art, incredibly accessible.
Once her performance was over, it was followed by what Eiko described as a “show and tell” back at the Dance Place theater space. She talked us through a series of photographs that were projected onto the upstage wall of the theater. These photographs were a collaboration she did with Japanese historian and photographer William Johnston in the aftermath of the Fukushima tsunami and subsequent nuclear plant meltdown back in 2011. This series, titled A Body in Fukushima, showed an abandoned Fukushima resulting from toxic levels of radiation. These photographs were taken in 2014, a time where the radiation levels were still highly dangerous. Eiko described feeling an obligation to be there and see Fukushima in that state, and she did warn that a large contributor to her decision to take on this project in Fukushima was her age. At the time, she was over 60 years old, and thus not as susceptible to the dangers of radiation as a younger person would be.
Fukushima, once a vibrant and densely populated area, was left deserted for many years after the tsunami due to toxic levels of radiation stemming from nearby nuclear power plants. Eventually, plant life began to take over the ruins left by civilization making it look like a real-life post apocalyptic desert. This photo series showed Eiko dancing all over Fukushima much in the same way we had witnessed in her performance earlier. Many times, the same costumes and beautiful purple shawl were featured in these photos. Though this was a highly dangerous endeavor, Eiko made sure to let us know that her sense of obligation to feature Fukushima was fueled by a sense of remorse. This remorse stemmed from a feeling of “allowing” this sort of thing to happen in a place with such vibrant history, and expressed a desire to forewarn and prevent it from happening again. She explained, “Nothing that is man-made lasts forever. And so, we knew that eventually this was coming.”
Eiko expressed that she hopes this disaster in Fukushima serves as a lesson for the rest of the world and that her main goal in this project was to serve as the conduit between the two. If people could see her use these props and explore their world in the same way that she did in the featured photographs, then they could feel personally connected to the lessons learned from Fukushima.
Listening to Eiko tell her story and seeing her photographs in Fukushima helped to paint a fuller picture of her performance earlier in the evening. That sense of yearning to get back to a familiar place and exploring the place where she found herself now all made sense. It was interesting to see this character examine the same streets that I walked on countless times – she made me look at them in a way I never have. As she slowly examined the nooks and crannies of the street, she made me, and the others gathered around, slow down with her and get intimate with our world; our home. These streets we walk on each day, these places we mundanely overlook, they too are fragile. They too are worth saving.