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Evoking a Landscape All Their Own : Dance: Eiko and Koma bring their unique style of moving--and not moving--to L.A. with ‘Land’ and ‘Wind.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What Eiko and Koma do onstage is difficult to describe accurately. These Japanese-born artists have been acclaimed by dance critics across the United States and in Europe, but their performances are hardly dance in any traditional sense. Instead, they enact mysterious rituals, set in desolate dreamscapes.

Little happens, and yet this couple--Eiko is the woman and Koma the man--manage to elongate time. Movements occur very slowly and with great difficulty; their frequently naked bodies writhe and twist into images that seem primal, erotic and unnerving. Stillness is an equally important part of their aesthetic. Eiko and Koma make performances about the struggle of human beings to live, the fragility of the environment and the inseparable relationship between the two.

For some audiences, their work is eloquent and hypnotic. For others, it induces narcolepsy. Charles Rinehart, director of the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., where Eiko and Koma have performed 10 times since 1983, is one of their unrepentant fans. “I’ve been careful not to use the word unique when describing artists,” he says during a recent telephone interview, “but no one is making work the way they do. They evoke the beginning of time.”

The duo, who choose not to use their last name, are returning to Los Angeles for the first time since 1985 with two pieces, “Land” (1991) and “Wind” (1993), sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in conjunction with UCLA. “Wind” will be performed Friday at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall; “Land” will be performed the next evening at the Japan America Theatre. As is their habit, the couple will also teach classes during this brief visit, what Eiko and Koma call their “Delicious Movement Workshops.”

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For those who have followed Eiko and Koma’s career, both the 75-minute “Land” and the 70-minute “Wind” mark a noticeable departure from their previous work. The glacial movement style has not changed, but the images are no longer so dark and monochromatic. Eiko and Koma have added color to their evocative landscapes, as well as music and another performer, their son Shin, age 6. (Their other son, Yuta, age 9, originated the roles when the works premiered.)

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More significant, they have collaborated with other artists for the first time. New York-based visual artist Sandra Lerner designed the set for “Land.” Her painted backdrop, which cascades down over the stage floor, subtly evokes a desert terrain. Musicians Robert Mirabal and Reynaldo Lujan, two Native Americans from the Taos Pueblo, provide the live flute, drums and vocal accompaniment, for a score composed by Mirabal. Both men are visible during the performance, dressed in traditional Pueblo garb.

Mirabal also conceived the sound for “Wind"--a logical extension, Eiko and Koma say, of “Land’s” exploration of the forces of nature. Next in the series comes “River,” a site-specific piece scheduled to premiere this summer in Lexington, N.Y. “Wind” doesn’t have a set per se, although the stage is dusted with feathers, which continue to drift gently down from the flies during performance.

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Offstage, the pair resembles any other fortysomething couple trying to rear two children in New York. They talk as much about schools and play dates and neighborhood safety as they do about art-making, frequently interrupting each other during conversation.

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Their 29th-floor apartment--a rental in mid-town Manhattan--is modest. Apart from its unobstructed view looking south toward the World Trade Center, the most distinctive feature is the living room, completely unfurnished save for an upright piano and the straw matting covering the floor.

“Land” was inspired, in part, by a visit to Taos. “It sounds kinky because everyone says it,” notes Eiko, 43, “but Taos is so beautiful.”

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“Not only beautiful,” interjects Koma, 47. “I felt something about America. People say this is the New World, but land is very old. In Taos, I sensed for the first time, ‘Yes, America has new land.’ The texture of the land there is different, like newborn babies’ skins. You want to touch it.”

Adds Eiko: “It’s one of the few areas where you could drive and see the land without seeing the human structure to it.”

“Somehow we know without talking what we want to do next,” Koma says. “When you have lived with someone for 25 years, things come out.”

Eiko elaborates: “Taos only helped frame what had already been cooking. We were ready for the color and the collaboration and the music. For 10 years, we used close-to-nothing music, if any. We also knew we wanted to make a piece called ‘Land.’ Once we know the title, we can start thinking about the performance and can start improvising.”

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In Mirabal, Eiko and Koma say, they found a young collaborator who shares their love of nature and thinks about life in a manner similar to their own, as an accumulation of real and imagined experiences, linking all people and places in a continuum. Creating the piece itself took 1 1/2 years. To do so, Eiko and Koma traveled back to New Mexico on four occasions after their initial contact with the composer; Mirabal traveled east an equal number of times.

Although “Land” officially premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 1991, its earliest performances were seen in Hiroshima. “That was deliberate,” says Eiko. “We really wanted Robert to see our country, and the place we wanted him to see was where the atom bomb was dropped. Remember, the nuclear weapon was first tested in New Mexico, about an hour from Taos.”

Eiko and Koma met as students in Japan in the early 1970s. Both were involved in leftist politics at the time, while also studying butoh dance with two of its masters, first with Tatsumi Hijikata and subsequently with Kazuo Ohno. Frustrated by the increasingly hierarchical political scene, realizing that they didn’t have the patience to master butoh technique and knowing that they did not want to be branded the disciples of another artist anyway, they left Japan. They traveled to Germany via the trans-Siberian railroad to study with a disciple of Mary Wigman, the German Expressionist choreographer. In 1976, they moved to New York.

“Mr. Ohno was always telling me how Argentina was, how Havana was,” Eiko says. “He saw them, but we hadn’t. We had to find our own experience in order to have our own voice.” They have succeeded.

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* Eiko and Koma perform “Wind” Friday at 8 p.m. at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, (310) 825-2101. $9-$25. Saturday at 8 p.m., the group performs “Land” at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., (213) 680-3700. $18-$20.


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