new york

Eiko & Koma, New Moon Stories

brooklyn academy of music

The most striking feature of the Japanese dance-theater mode called butoh is the way it melds extreme physical action and cosmic themes into tightly disciplined, wildly emotional performances. Eiko and Koma, who count butoh pioneers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno among their teachers, do not label their collaborations as butoh, but their grounding in the genre gives their performances a typically strenuous and metaphysical butohlike intensity. New Moon Stories adapted their performances to a format similar to other recent butoh pieces; revised versions of three earlier works and a new performance were combined into a panoramic epic. Each work had been like a performance poem, a live haiku built around a single physical event and setting; while individually powerful, their juxtaposition within New Moon Stories’ overall structure amplified their impact tremendously. New Moon Stories, barely over an hour in length, was a devastating performance of an expansive, resonant scope rarely seen.

Typically butohlike images of birth and death, of obsessive, almost grotesque gestures, and of haunting, universal meanings appeared as the four acts unfolded, each a variation on the theme of primal creation and destruction. In Night Tide, two protoplasmic stalks on a raised platform rose, slowly waved, and eventually edged toward each other in a crepuscular light. One eventually figured out the contorted position from which Eiko and Koma were working: upended, “standing” on their shoulders with head and limbs hidden. These two shapes mimed primordial matter blindly evolving, as did the climax, an exhausted “mating” that left both creatures prostrate, unmoving. A similar literal/figurative rise and fall took place in Beam, in which Eiko slid off a large pile of earth; after clawing her way back up the hill and mounting Koma’s shoulders, she emitted a strangled cry, then slowly slid down again, head first into darkness, leaving a strained Koma standing alone. Their newest work, Shadows, presented Eiko writhing on stage in a gauzy kimono, legs spread in an abstract simulation of childbirth. A spectral Koma, nude and pale, crept toward her throughout the ordeal, finally connecting with her in an embrace/clutch from behind like a spirit of passionate death. Elegy conjured up a more specific image: as the nude performers worked their way through pools of water in a series of struggling efforts, it was hard not to think of Hiroshima, where the burned victims of the atomic bomb swarmed to the river to relieve their agony. At the end, there was another exhausted motion to link up; lying flat, Eiko reached out for Koma with a barely moving arm, a small, poignant gesture that compressed the largest possible feelings of loss and love into one brief, highly charged moment—as did the entire New Moon Stories.

John Howell