My 20-minute phone call to NYC to interview performers Eiko and Koma, who begin the Chicago leg of their three-year, coast-to-coast retrospective on Friday 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, isn’t what I expect. Last year’s Naked, for example, is the type of performance commonly accompanied by offstage hauteur, or at least a laconic mystique. The pair barely moves for five hours at a time, lying together on a nest made of feathers, hair and twigs.
But Eiko and Koma are cutups, frequently poking fun at the hard-line idealism of their youth—they’re now 59 and 62, respectively—as well as at each other. Bear that in mind while you watch them focus viewers’ attention like a magnifying glass in the sunlight, aimed at an ant crawling across the surface of a Mark Rothko painting.
When did you meet and what were you doing at the time?
Koma: Eiko was 19. I was 22. In the university. We were doing social movement. [Laughs] Lots of demonstrations. Physical demonstrations. Choking our enemies’ throats!
Eiko: Last week in The New Yorker, it said Koma tied up his professor and threw him out into the street. [Laughs]
Koma: In the ’60s. Young people. We were so serious. Too serious… Anyway, we gave up. No, didn’t give up, but we needed some kind of break. Dancing as an art idiom was the easiest, meaning to get involved in theater you need so many people: a playwright, someone to direct. But in dance, you just need your body. It’s very simple. It’s not true, of course. That was very naive thinking.
Were you as aggressive as Koma was, Eiko?
Eiko: Yeah, pretty aggressive. Maybe I wasn’t as physically strong, but I think mentally I was very aggressive.
Koma: It’s taken 40 years, but she’s calmed down. [Both laugh] Now she moves her naked buttocks for 20 minutes. We used to be very aggressive [about] nakedness.
Eiko: I think we rely more [now] on acknowledging time and space, and not so much, What’s pushing me? What’s the next movement I can do, I can show?
How choreographed is Naked?
Koma: We set our movement ideas. Eiko has a special spot, I have a special spot, [we have] that boundary [between us], but, as far as the movement, we are always on the floor, lying down. We never stand up. Those kinds of score we have. But, otherwise…it’s pretty free.
Eiko: If I move my right hand or my left hand? That’s not choreographed.… That once in a while we open our eyes, that’s decided.… There’s a little bit of a process of studying. If I keep staring at the people, what happens? If I don’t look at the people at all, what happens?
Do people ever talk to you while you’re performing?
Eiko: “Are you crazy?” or “This is absurd.” This happened in the Walker [Art Center in Minneapolis], where people just happened to come to our room and find out, God, two people are lying down, naked. I’m not talking about every day.
Koma: Last week, when we finished our New York season with Naked we got 3,700 people and nobody spoke to us.
Eiko: Oh and I think in New York, because it wasn’t in a museum context, people came knowing what they were…they were prepared to find what they found, rather than being surprised by it.
To which of the two versions will your Chicago presentation of Naked be more similar?
Eiko: Neither. This is the thing: We adapt it to the site, and in that context of it being a museum, yes, it is closer to being at the Walker, but in the Walker we had an entire month of [Naked], where in the Chicago MCA…Naked is being performed as part of the exhibition, and Naked is being installed without our bodies much of the time, which is a whole new concept to approach Naked.
Do either of you view performing Naked as a test of your endurance?
Koma: We get a bathroom break every two hours or so.
Eiko: I don’t think so, because “test” implies there is a result or expectation and you fail or you succeed.… It’s more about how much we can enjoy ourselves while doing this.… My job is to make it satisfying to myself. I don’t mean satisfying in the sense of success satisfaction, happy-happy-smiling satisfying, but about something juicy, finding something juicy here and there.
Why don’t you call yourselves Butoh artists?
Eiko: Because we like our teachers. Kazuo Ohno is an amazing artist, but first of all I want to point out that we don’t have one teacher, we have teachersss. That’s one, and number two, it would be really odd for someone who studied with [Merce] Cunningham to walk around, saying, “My work is post-Cunningham,” or, “I’m a Cunningham student.” It’s more important to say who you are so you become responsible to your own work. Three, [Laughs] we are really very bad students, and we don’t want people to see us and, if they didn’t like it, we don’t want them to be talking to their friends, “I saw Butoh.” Because, then, it gets out of our hands. As rather than, to say, “We saw Eiko and Koma.”… Then, it’s our responsibility, and it doesn’t go into, “I saw them and I don’t like them and therefore I don’t like Butoh.” That’s too much of a shortcut and it doesn’t really allow people to think about what they saw.
Koma: My name is Takashi Otake. That’s my real name. Since I started my dancing career, I took another name, Koma. On top of that, I carry my passport that’s Japanese. I already have enough, so I don’t think of labeling myself, too, that I went to this school, or that church, that religion, you know?
Eiko: I’m not objecting to people using [the label “Butoh”]. What I’m objecting to is artists themselves using it.
Koma: And artists should have some liberty to change, you know?
Eiko: But that’s not to say that we don’t respect our teachers. I always, always credit our teachers.
Where did the name Koma come from?
Koma: I come from a small town near a small mountain called Koma, it’s the mountain’s name, and my home address, believe it or not, is also Koma.
Were you this mountain in Night Tide, your 1984 dance about the movement of mountains?
Koma: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was my hometown mountain. [Laughs]
How do you follow a three-year, nationwide retrospective?
Koma: We’re preparing to make an Eiko and Koma Museum. [Both laugh] We are looking for a three-story building. First floor is my floor, and third floor is Eiko’s floor. Second floor is our permanent collection space and performance areas full of audience! [Both laugh] And the really beautiful part is my cemetery, where I die. In this building you will get everything about Eiko and Koma!
Eiko and Koma get Naked at the Museum of Contemporary Art beginning Friday 24.