Eiko & Koma, AXIS reimagine the dancing body

November 8, 2011

By Lucia Mauro

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(Photo courtesy of Eiko & Koma)
Eiko & Koma’s living installation 'Naked' begins Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Turner Gallery.

Editor's Note: Body and soul unite in two upcoming dance performances. Each encourages audiences to re-imagine the body in motion. Lucia Mauro shared her take with Eight Forty-Eight:

In dance, the body is a given. After all, it’s the instrument through which artists ply their craft on stage. But some dancer-choreographers challenge viewers to look beyond the flesh and make new discoveries about relationships and their place in the grand scheme of things. Eiko and Koma are legendary figures in experimental dance that doubles as installation art. The Japanese-born husband and wife will perform a continuous duet, titled Naked, at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Turner Gallery. In it, the unclothed dancers move at a glacially slow pace inside a giant nest of twigs and feathers. Their exposed chalk-white bodies seem to figuratively dematerialize inside their natural environment—they fuse with the earth.

Now some may ask, “But is this dance?” And the answer is not so straightforward. Eiko and Koma were influenced by a post-World War II Japanese practice known as Butoh. This artistic movement, which also has been called a meditative approach to life, honors the journey of the body from birth to death and beyond. Often associated with the atomic bomb and white-powder makeup, Butoh utilizes the entire body, from eyes to fingertips. Eiko and Koma are considered more avant-garde dance artists, most interested in linking human beings to their natural surroundings. And despite their often naked performances, their bodies do not necessarily project sexuality. Rather, the sensual texture of their skin merges with crackling leaves and branches; throughout, their bodies seem to disappear.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, AXIS Dance Company does not advocate the gradual disappearance of the body. Instead, the artists of this longtime physically-integrated troupe place dancers in wheelchairs front and center. They are joined by able-bodied dancers; but everyone is an able-bodied dancer in this company. . For its Chicago engagement at the Auditorium Theatre, AXIS will perform choreographer Alex Ketley’s hard-edged Vessel. It consists of a stream of quartets and duets meant to evoke how human bodies can project memories, both assuring and painful.

The central duet in Vessel places a man and woman in an aggressive push and pull. His wheelchair seems to serve as a barrier for their fractured relationship. The woman soars into his lap, perches in a dangerous overhead lift, and tumbles across the floor. He resists, rotates and pitches forward in utter despair before picking himself up and continuing a less arresting tug of war. Just watching them interact is like being mesmerized by the continuous movement of a carousel. The action is fierce and non-stop. It’s also gentle and sublime—like  gliding ice dancers entwined with graciously sculpted shapes in space.

Both Eiko and Koma and AXIS Dance Company challenge preconceptions about dance and expand the reach of the human body.

Eiko & Koma’s living installation Naked begins Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Turner Gallery.

AXIS Dance Company performs Nov. 19 and 20 at the Auditorium Theatre.